Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Culture Lust etc

I have been extremely fortunate enough to get to know Angela Carone, the Arts & Culture producer for These Days on San Diego's local NPR station, KPBS. Angela hosts a blog over on KPBS.org called Culture Lust (sorta like the Book Catapult but without all the bad words) and has been foolish enough to ask me to write some book related posts from time to time - the first of which can be seen here. In all seriousness, I am very grateful to Angela for giving me this chance to move beyond the Catapult. I am truly humbled. But is the world really ready for this?

In other news: for comparison purposes related to my Notable List post, check out the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2007. If I were a giant, multinational news corporation, I would have 100 books on my list too. But while I see 3 books on theirs that also made my list (Falling Man, Tree of Smoke, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union), I do take issue with some of the others they selected (see below) - perhaps 100 is too many?

1. After Dark by Haruki Murakami - I'm done with him. He writes beautifully and I usually read him every time, but he makes me feel stupid because I don't get IT, whatever IT is. Jibber jabber, as they say.
2. Remainder by Tom McCarthy - I'm not going over this one again.
3. Well, its really just those two. I got bored with critical darling, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but that doesn't mean it's not any good. (I just wanted the story to stay on Oscar, not his various family members.) On Chesil Beach was a bit dull, for a novel about sex, so I stopped reading - but it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (although I'm sure that's just because Ian McEwan wrote it. ) And Then We Came to the End read like a treatment for The Office - funny, but not what I was really in the mood for and a bit stilted in its style. Maybe that was the point - it was then shortlisted for the National Book Award.... And they left out the only nonfiction book I read last year. What do I know?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Seth's Notable List 2007

Welcome to my Notable List for 2007. There were 10 slots available this year – 9 have been filled by the hands-down best books I read this past year. The 10th is populated by 6 Notable Notables (or “The Tenth Man” award) – not quite on par with the rest of the list, but necessary reading, nonetheless.

DeNiro’s Game by Rawi Hage
Passed the First Page Test with its opening sentence: “Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George.” At turns a truly brilliant debut novel, proving, as if anyone ever had any doubt, that 1980’s Beirut was a really horrible place to grow up. Hage intermingles a hypnotic style of descriptive prose with his sharp, tense dialogues between George (or, DeNiro) & Bassam, best friends on very different life paths. As Bassam dreams of life away from Hell, George tries to “make the best of things” by embracing the brutality all around him. As a result, their friendship becomes more & more precarious as their city threatens to engulf them both into its frightening civil war.

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
I have written quite a bit about this book on this site already – I read it back in January and posted a long, effusive review. It is at turns a morality tale, a detective story, and a comprehensive overview of modern India. Chandra proves that modern Mumbai is not an easy place to live – the disparity between the levels of society is so great, it’s a wonder that it all hasn’t collapsed yet. (Then again, is modern American culture so different in its disparity?) Perhaps it is that disparity in India that keeps the structure standing. And within that disparity lives Sartaj Singh – the Sikh detective struggling to find the moral high ground he knows must exist somewhere in Bombay.

FYI: If you live in SoCal, Chandra will be at Warwick’s for a book signing on January 17 – this could be your opportunity to meet both Vikram Chandra and the operator of the Book Catapult!

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Although this is the 16th Dave Robicheaux book that Burke has written (and that I have read), this one stands out as his most literary, eloquent, and genre defying. The publisher packages these New Orleans novels as your average mystery pulp – the author’s name in 500-point font on the cover, mass-market editions in paper, doomed to the cardboard display dumps. Burke deserves better. This is his Katrina novel – and it smolders with the pain, heartbreak, and betrayal – both by Mother Nature and Big Brother - that destroyed the city he loves and changed the lives of New Orleanians forever. A great detective novel, but one filled with a heartbreaking, remarkably evocative realism that brought it all back for me, in a way that only Burke can.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Another book I have already written a full review of on the Catapult. I admit, I have not read much of DeLillo, although I have been told to do so many, many times. (I have read half of Underworld – and loved it – I have no idea why I stopped.) DeLillo-philes tell me that there are better DeLillo books out there, but this one really resonated with me for some reason. It has been a hard sell though – people just don’t want to read a book about 9/11 for fun right now. But for me, although it dredged up memories of that shitty day in New York, it helped me put things back into perspective. That day has proven to be a generation defining one – it set the course of human history for the next century, at least. There are first graders out there who have no idea what the New York skyline used to look like or what it was like to walk through the gate at the airport with your shoes on. I previously wrote that “DeLillo writes about America – not in a political, patriotic sense of America – but in a way that reflects how we feel, think, act, love, hate towards each other.” This is the theme of Falling Man – how we have come to act towards one another in the aftermath of tragedy. I just wish we had actually learned something.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Chabon is one of those writers for whom I feverishly drop whatever I am reading whenever his latest arrives. Sometimes I try to “save” them for as long as I can – but his books tend to be few and far between, so that strategy never works. His linguistic command is staggering, witty, & eloquent – characters have voices “like an onion rolling around in a bucket” and tough-as-nails detective, Meyer Landsman, “tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket.” Sitka pulsates & breathes like a living entity in the hands of Chabon – you almost start to believe that such a place exists, and that Meyer dutifully polices its streets with a heavy heart.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
Some books have the ability to truly transport you, within their pages, elsewhere – a place where as long as your eyes are on the page, you are no longer sitting in your favorite chair, but experiencing the lives on the page as though they were your own. Everything around me screeched to a halt while I was reading this. How was this not even a Booker Prize nominee? Are you kidding me?

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Fresh from winning the National Book Award, Johnson’s magnificent saga of the Vietnam War is one of those books that I think will stand up as an important, politically poignant piece of fiction – most likely remembered as the quintessential novel of Vietnam. The story of humble, everyman soldier, Skip Sands, is funny, sad, serious, critical, cynical, all the time, on every page. And I was pleasantly surprised at my level of emotional and intellectual commitment by the end, as one can’t help but draw parallels to our current foreign predicaments from such a historical vantage point.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
Weisman presents a readable, cohesive series of hypothetical situations as a method to explore humanity’s impact on our planet. What would the world be like if humans disappeared overnight? How soon would the earth reclaim? Would the damage we have already done be irreversible in global terms or would the planet rebound quicker than we would imagine? I also found myself overly fascinated by the extinctions of the world’s megafauna – what really killed the giant ground sloth? Really a fascinating book that subtly scares you with science, forces you to reflect on your own footprint, and tries to get all of humanity to view the world through greener eyes. This book should be required reading for every man, woman, and child on Earth.

Five Skies by Ron Carlson
The best book I read in 2007 – although, sadly, no one else seems to have read it. Read my full review here and go buy the book here! Now!

2007 Notable Notables or, the Tenth Man of the List

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Temple has written eight books and won Australia’s top crime fiction prize a remarkable five times. While this is billed rather simply as “crime fiction” – & at the heart of this, there are several violent crimes – Temple uses descriptive prose uncommon to the genre to really open up the countryside world of rural northern Australia & its inhabitants. All Joe Cashin wants to do is forget his city detective job, rebuild his family homestead, & hang out with his dogs – impossible pursuits in a crime novel, of course – but he ends up enmeshed in small town politics & shocking crimes, by criminals & cops alike, that threaten to permanently wreck his vacation.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Only relegated to the “Tenth Man” end of the list because it’s been out for so long and I waited a year before reading it. Shteyngart skewers American foreign policy in a pre-9/11 world, relentlessly mocks Halliburton & their imagined subsidiaries, and spins the tale of a hip hop lovin’ (“If Pushkin were a rapper, he’d be MC Push!”), grossly overweight Russian Jew named Misha, aka “Snack Daddy”, who’s trapped in lowly Absurdistan in the middle of a contrived war over oil (is this fiction?) & separated from the love of his life, Rouenna from the Bronx. One of the funniest books I have ever read – but, like Confederacy of Dunces, not for everyone.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Gideon Mack is a small town Scottish minister who happens to be an atheist. (Sold!) He obviously keeps this a secret from his congregation until after he falls into a massive ravine and is swept away by the raging river below. While the town assumes that he has died, a mysterious stranger rescues Gideon in an underground cavern. For three days, Gideon is nursed back to health and comes to realize that his “savior” is actually the Devil. When he is released back to the world, his whole perspective has changed and he burns with the need to tell the world what he has learned. Is God dead? Is he just on hiatus? Is the Devil manipulating Gideon out of boredom? Is Gideon insane? Is he hallucinating? Is he lying? Very smart, evocative, and strangely timely.

Ammunition by Ken Bruen
Word to the wise – if you decide to muster the moxie to shoot Sergeant Brandt in the back while he’s enjoying a pint, be sure that he’s dead. Brandt is the rudest, most obnoxious cop in London & just about everyone he’s ever met or come in contact with would have a reason to put a bullet in him. But be assured, twisted revenge will arrive sooner or later. Welcome to London’s Metropolitan Police, where Brandt may be the most stable cop of them all. Well, maybe not. Bruen’s brilliant, machine-gun quick dialogue & furious pacing makes him one of my all-time favorites and a perennial pick for the Notable list.

Sun Over Breda by Arturo Perez-Reverte
I already reviewed this here. Also, my blurb was selected as a Booksense Notable book for May 2007. Solid swashbuckling fun.

Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett
Detective Sonchai Jitpleetcheep, with the help of his transgendered partner and the FBI agent in love with him/her, has to sort through the connections between a Thai hooker murdered in a snuff film (a former lover of Sonchai’s), a pushy, not-very-Buddhist, Buddhist priest, an American pimp/business man, Sonchai’s aggressive, greedy boss, and the powerful men at the highest levels of Thai society. Better than Bangkok Tattoo and right on par with the brilliant Bangkok 8.

Now go out and read some books.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I Quit

I was going through the Winter 2008 HarperCollins catalog today at work and just as I came to the very end, I passed this page: What have I been telling you people? The man is a menace.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tree of Smoke

Perennially, the National Book Awards let me down. I know this is a pretty minor thing to be let down by, and if this is the worst that life throws at me, so be it. But as this is a blog primarily about books, I can be dramatic about it. Anyway, last year I rooted hard for Jess Walter's totally awesome The Zero only to be thwarted by Richard Powers. The year before that, Doctorow's totally awesome The March was crushed beneath the unreadable mass of William Vollmann's Europe Central. 2004 brought 5 nominees that no one had read, '03 was Shirley Hazzard (whatever), and '02 was Julia Glass. Julia Glass? But in 2007, the panel finally got it right. Denis Johnson, author of Tree of Smoke, a brilliant book that is funny, sad, serious, critical, cynical, all the time, on every page, has won the National Book Award for Fiction. Congratulations. To both of us.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gone To The Dogs

First of all, I would like to thank all the neurotic, hate-filled housewives out there who felt compelled to leave comments regarding my post from earlier this week on the book "My Life with George". Thanks for reading. I think you missed my point though - or rather, I think you've inadvertently proved my point.

There is an absurd glut of neurotic dog books on the American market and I think that that makes for poor reading material and is contributing to the effective "dumbing down" of America. (A quick Amazon book search for "neurotic dog" turned up 398 results. I mean, c'mon.) People read to escape the world and feel good about life (sometimes), I understand that. If you gleaned something out of "My Life with George" that made you feel warm inside, good for you. However, I am of the belief that there are more responsible things to spend $25,000 on other than canine health. As one of the few commenters who came to my defense (if such a thing is possible) pointed out that the problem area with this book lies in the philosophy that "somehow it is ethical and entertaining for someone to spend more money on a spoiled DOG than a lot of people make in one year?" Being one of those underpaid people, I am of the mind that this is an endemic problem with America. (And I don't care whether the author is British, Kurdish, or Martian - the book was published in the United States, sold in American bookstores, and is being read by American readers.) People tend to throw cash at problems, call their dogs neurotic, drive SUVs, vote Republican, and treat booksellers like crap. I cannot relate to these people on a very basic level - the same way I cannot relate to taking my spaniel to the vet for a sore throat. Twice. "Hey George, do you have a sore throat?" "Ruff, ruff!" "OK, let's go to the vet." What is that?

I have no doubt that Judith Summers loves her dog and that he has been a source of comfort for her in the difficult times she's faced. And again, if you read her book and felt your heart glow, I can't knock you for that. If this were the first and only book that had been published this year featuring a so-called "neurotic" dog that won the hearts and minds of some family, I would never even talk about it. But "Marley & Me" sparked a "blame-the-family-dog-for-our-neurotic-shortcomings" revolution in the book world and I'm flat out sick of it. Sorry if George caught my ire full in the face, but that's life.

The WoofAnd for the record, I am not a dog hater, as my friend Jade here would attest. She was brought down too early by calcified discs in her neck, but as hard as it was, we knew when enough was enough.

She also ate Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for breakfast every single day.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Can I Get a "what what"?!

I was planning on writing a review of Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon today, but I think I will instead load the Book Catapult for Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball - one of the oddest books I have ever read.

My first clue should have been the blurb from Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder, featured on the jacket: "Like a tale by Lewis Carroll or a film by David Lynch, Samedi the Deafness teeters on the edge of unreality, plunges right in, and comes back again full circle." Alright, so I'm a glutton for punishment. (I have previously written on this site of my disdain for both McCarthy's book and everything David Lynch has ever done, so....) It's also billed as "a dreamlike spy novel". No. It is not. The book's premise is no doubt intriguing though - James Sim is a mnemonist (he has a perfect photographic memory). Apparently, this is his profession as well - this element is never really clarified and is probably not important, although I am still curious as to how one makes money remembering shit. Anyway, he is in the park one day and comes across a man who has been attacked and stabbed and is in the throes of death. The man fills James' head with wild conspiracy theories before he expires, piquing James' interest enough that he spends the rest of the book obsessing over the clues. Soon thereafter, he is kidnapped by interested parties and brought to a sprawling country mansion that houses a verisylum - an institution for pathological liars. After this point, the conspiracy element sort of takes over & James struggles to sort out who is lying to him, what the big coverup/diabolical plot is, and who or what "Samedi" is. Interspersed throughout are little vignette chapters involving James in his youth, adventuring with his tiny, invisible owl friend, Ansilon. Huh? From here on out, I thought the author was deliberately trying to slip me up - to make me hate him - rather than trying to engage me and lead me forward. And there's something pretentious and almost immature about the writing - as if the theories and ideas are sound & compelling, but the author cannot distinguish between good story and total jibberish.

An author should be your guide, in a sense - drawing the story outward as you watch. It's really no fun when they try to obscure things so much that you feel completely lost, even at the conclusion. I mean, I get it here - everyone in the book is a pathological liar, even James, most likely - so no part of the narrative is to be trusted. I get it. I like this idea - it's very David Mitchell - I just think that Ball doesn't pull it off - like I said, he obscures rather than reveals. That sucks. It was almost like a train wreck - and I mean that in the nicest way, truly - I just couldn't pull my eyes away, even though I was totally fed up with every character at about the midway point. I wanted to stop, but I kept hoping that something would improve. It did not. Everyone kept lying to me and I kept having to read about the owl.

So, until his storytelling skills improve to blend with his expansive imagination, Jesse Ball is sitting in the Book Catapult.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Save A Tree...

I came across this book today that represents, to me at least, everything that is wrong with, not just the book industry, but America in general. If this is any indicator, our souls are rotten to the core.

Here's the unedited, straight from the jacket, copy from the publisher, Hyperion: "When Judith Summers first met George, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who would change her life, she and her young son, Joshua were mourning the deaths of her husband and her father, who had died barely two weeks apart. It was love at first sight. George was the ultimate upper-class pooch, and seemingly the perfect puppy, brimming with love and joy and complete with "the kind of film-star looks that made strangers stop in the street and coo over him." But, as Judith soon discovered, George was as time-consuming as a full-time job and as expensive to run as a Ferrari. Willful, possessive and badly behaved, he refused to eat anything other than organic roast chicken, destroyed her work, and suffered from every allergy and illness under the sun. On top of that, George was horribly accident-prone. Stuff happened to him. His vet bills alone have run to $25,000 -- and George is still only nine years old!"

I think I'll just stop there. The full title is, My Life with George: What I Learned About Joy from One Neurotic (and Very Expensive) Dog by Judith Summers. It just bums me out that this is what passes for a quality frontlist title from a major publishing house these days - and yeah, this is what people supposedly want to read about, but that doesn't make it right!

And really, who's the neurotic one - the genetically manufactured dog with a brain the size of an apricot or the self-absorbed owners who project their own neuroses upon him?