Thursday, September 11, 2008

Catapult Hiatus

Dubrovnik, CroatiaFor the millions of Junior Catapult Operators out there, I just wanted to let you know that my lovely lady and I are going on a much needed vacation in Eastern Europe for the next two weeks, so the 'Pult will be silent. Dry those tears - I shall return to regale you with tales of Prague, the Dalmation coast, Budapest, and beyond.

(Actually, when I get back, I'll most likely just write more jibberish about books, as usual. Thanks for visiting! Love, Seth)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Booker Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced today and the two books that I have rallied behind are still breathing. Oh yeah. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. The former colony is up in yo face!

The shortlist is:
The White Tiger
Sea of Poppies
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

What is up with that? Seriously.Salman Rushie, survivor of fatwa, ex of Padma, six-time Booker nominee, and winner of the 1981 prize and reigning Booker of Bookers, surprisingly got the axe. As did fellow favorite Joseph O'Neill (Netherland) and controversial pick, Tom Robb Smith (Child 44). The inclusion of Smith to the longlist has been covered at length on the Book Catapult (as well as on more reputable sites and publications) but I think that it's missing of the cut here actually hurts the prize itself. I mentioned before that snobbery and complaining about including the "thriller" genre threatens to ostracize the average reader and is endangering the cultural significance of awards like the Booker. Two days after I wrote about the uproar over Child 44, I, and some of my fellow booksellers had the opportunity to address 75+ people at my bookstore for a book recommendation night for local book clubs. In my (riveting) portion of the talk, I discussed The White Tiger and Tim Winton's Breath, and mentioned their connections to the Booker. When I was met with relatively blank expressions, I asked "How many people know what the Booker Prize is?" Maybe 20 raised their hands. When I asked "How many of you have read Life of Pi?", they all raised their hands. "That won the Booker." "Ohhhhhhhh."

This is not their fault - the audience was filled with some very well-read people - their lack of awareness is simply due to the of the lack of mainstream titles to be included on the list each year and the snobbery invloved in the selection process. Hell, I don't even know anything about The Northern Clemency or The Clothes on Their Backs - they've yet to be released in the States. The Linda Grant book doesn't even have a US distributor yet. I know that the Booker is a British award, but Americans are heavies in the book buying world - how can people be expected to care about the prize if they can't get their hands on the books? Booker needs to lose the 'tude, give my man David Mitchell the Prize next time or they're going to lose all cultural relevance and be relegated to the remainder stacks. And none of us want that.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (Review)

Nick HarkawayI think my initial reaction to this book, upon reading the first 10 pages or so, was, "What the hell is this?" (or some f-bomb-laced variation thereof) The galley is a tough HOT fuscia in color, but the copy on the back read that it "combines antic humor (think Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut) with a stunning futuristic vision (a la A Clockwork Orange and 1984, with a little Mad Max thrown in)". Intriguing. And actually, the resulting book is pretty magnificent, I have to say. It's one of those novels that sticks in your craw and keeps surfacing back into your consciousness, interrupting your life with mimes, ninjas, and the end of the world as we know it.

Published in the UK in June to some substantial acclaim (see reviews in The Guardian and The Independent), The Gone-Away World is just now making it's way into American bookshops - although, not every one. Perhaps if people were aware that Nick Harkaway is the son of bestselling author, John le Carré, they would be further enticed? In order to be able to write a novel that was truly his own, Harkaway changed his name and does not openly publicize his heritage - it is not mentioned at all in the jacket copy. As a result, his work stands firmly on its own - a brilliant move actually, since this could not possibly be any less like a John le Carré spy novel. In illustrating the differences between his and his father's work, Harkaway said "There is not now, nor I suspect will there ever be, a le Carré novel with ninjas in it. Most serious novelists are wary of including ninjas in their writing. That's a shame, because many much-admired works of modern fiction could benefit from a few." That may give an indication of what we're dealing with here. Although, actually, you cannot imagine.

What would happen if our government was able to devise a weapon that would actually just make our enemies disappear? To literally cease to exist. This would seem to be a perfect form of warfare, right? No blood, no mess, no collateral damages. Not so much. In Harkaway's world, the damages left behind by making things "go away" are far, far worse than the initial threats. And when your enemies manage to devise a similar weapon for use against you, the world ends up with more substantial gaps in its very existence than anyone anticipated. When the earth is erased, it seems that our imaginations cross over into reality - creating monstrous figments come to life to fill in the gaps. All of our worst fears are physically realized: war is a physical presence, sweeping across the landscape like a black cloud; hideous, half-human creatures roam the landscape; images torn from our very nightmares confront their makers.

"Sometimes, the nightmares look like people."

Go get this book!Fortunately (or so one would initially think), the government figures out a way to keep the nightmare world at bay - or rather, Gonzo Lubitsch and his team of mercenary problem solvers figure it out. See, the bad things in the world are a result of the Stuff - residual fallout from the gone-away war machine. The Stuff sort of drifts across the landscape, wreaking havoc, making nightmares real. However, FOX ("the magic potion which kept the part of the world we still had roughly the same shape day by day") was discovered to have antidote properties to the Stuff, so the government built the Jorgamund Pipe - an earth-encircling pipeline filled with FOX which manages to create a safe perimeter of a livable zone. Still with me?

Of course, no government is to be trusted, least of all one which created a weapon of mass existential erasure, so there is an even larger, more sinister layer to all this, involving a good ol' fashioned vast government conspiracy. Which brings me to the biggest question: Who, exactly, is this unnamed narrator and what is his role in all of this? This is without a doubt the most intriguing storyline - and one which I cannot divulge any information regarding. Sorry, but I'd just be ruining it for you.


This is a crazy book, make no mistake. It is sci-fi, alternate reality, loopy stuff, but paired with very skilled writing and an amazingly rich cast of characters. After I finished this, I thought I was done with it - in the sense that a reader is usually able to move onto the next book, without feeling like they're leaving something unfinished behind. In her book The Thirteenth Tale, a novel I did not particularly care for, Diane Setterfeld posed this query to the reader: "Do you know that feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes - characters even - caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you." Hell yes. These characters were real, man. I could feel Gonzo Lubitsch and Ronnie Cheung and Humbert Pestle and Master Wu and Zaher Bey moving and breathing all around me, long after the book was closed and reshelved. In such a wacky, unpredictable, bizarre novel, Harkaway was able to wallop me in the face with such real people, that I was completely caught off guard, and in fact only realized their impact on me after I had wrapped things up. It is a very well-paced, well-crafted, surprisingly intricate and intelligent book that defies genre pigeon-holing and forces the reader to reexamine our own current reality and the state of the world. Are we so far off from this nonsense?

Despite all of that "reality of character" talk, the most incredible facet about this book is the fact that even on the pages within, you are never really sure who is actually a real person, and who is just a nightmare become real from the fallout of the Gone-Away War. Pretty cool.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Donkeys

This book arrived at my bookstore today. Yes, it was ordered on purpose. I just wanted to share. Perchance it was selected as a political statement? (donkey, democrats, you know.) One can only hope that that was the thinking behind it, but sadly, I think we thought our donkey section was lacking.

The Donkey Companion: Selecting, Training, Breeding, Enjoying & Caring for Donkeys by Sue Weaver ($24.95, Storey Books, a division of Workman Publishing)

Available at fine bookstores everywhere!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Butterflies

I meant to bring this up last week, since he is one of my favorites, but I suppose, better late than never - Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector, About Grace, and Four Seasons in Rome, has a righteous new short piece in Granta 102, fresh to the shelves in your local independent bookshop. Even better, you can read Butterflies on a Wheel right here at Granta. Here's a taste that I particularly dug:

"This year, as the leaves of spring unfurl, it’s as if I can feel the energy pumping through the interior of my cells, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging, some ancient physiological dictate sending its psychotropic messengers galloping through my nervous system: sell the furniture, scrub out the refrigerator, call in sick."