Friday, November 28, 2008

New York Times Notable List 2008

Fat from turkey dinner, it's the "list time" of year. The New York Times has released their 100 Notable Books of 2008 list - and reviewers Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani have put together their personal top tens for the year. More importantly, The Book Catapult's immensely influential annual list will follow in the weeks to come. Lists seem to have an inescapable appeal for us - we love to either heartily agree or vehemently argue over any lists, whether it be the Notable list of books or Rolling Stone's Top 100 Guitarists or Albums or Singers or Ham Sandwiches of all time - it seems to just be in our nature to express strong opinions over these likewise extremely opinionated compilations. We feel the need to continually challenge the opinions of others and to defend the items or individuals omitted from any one particular person's list, even though it really doesn't matter what we think. You don't like the list? Make your own, chump.

So, in the spirit of the moment, My Opinion of the NYT list is this: they have included several fantastic books which I have fought to champion over the last 12 months which have apparently managed to gain the recognition necessary to make the top 100 - this I feel good about. Lush Life, Breath, The Boat, Black Flies, My Revolutions, A Voyage Long and Strange, and 2666 all deservedly achieved Notable status. Of course, books that I suffered through or put down out of boredom also made the list: Beautiful Children, Atmospheric Disturbances, The Lazarus Project - all considered to be among the best for the year. I suppose we can agree to disagree, although I cannot say that these are not good books, having never been able to finish them. And it is curious that the controversial winner of the National Book Award, Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen failed to make the list at all. Hmm. See why we love the list?

That said in the interest of being impartial, yadda yadda, there are two rather enormous, glaring, shocking, appalling omissions from the Notable list from this (once) esteemed news organization: City of Thieves by David Benioff - easily the finest work of fiction produced in the year 2008 - and the Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. For shame! For shame! I guess I will have to manufacture my own list.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sometimes You Gotta Judge...

With all the time I spend within the actual pages of books, I thought it was about time I simply judged them by their covers. Therefore I present the Book Catapult's selections for the Best and Worst Titles and Book Jackets for works published in 2008. This was easier said than done - while this project was inspired by a profoundly bad title, compiling other bad titles and covers proved to be rather challenging. If anyone notices any glaring omissions, let me know.

Winner of The Book Catapult's Best Book Jacket for 2008:

The Boat by Nam Le (Knopf) The design is by Carol Devine Carson and the photo is
Clifford Ross, from his incredible "Hurricane" series.

Runners up:

- In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography by John Gartner (Macmillan)
- China: Portrait of a Country, Liu Heung Shing, editor (Taschen)
- The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo (Viking)
- Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen (Macmillan)
- Maps & Legends by Michael Chabon (McSweeney's - designed by Jordan Crane)

Winner of The Book Catapult's Best Book Title of 2008:

Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story by Christina Thompson (Bloomsbury)

Runners up:

- Hairdos of the Mildly Depressed by Doug Crandell (Virgin Books)
- The Butt by Will Self (Bloomsbury)
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (Little, Brown)
- The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo (Viking)
- Everything But the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain by John Barlow
- 2666 by Roberto Bolano (FSG)

Winner of The Book Catapult's Worst Book Jacket of 2008:

The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Runners up:

- Liberty by Garrison Keillor (Viking) - where's Waldo?
- Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler (Putnam) - cover design submitted via fax machine. You really should seek this out in person, to better appreciate the blurry, Microsoft Paint-created iceberg. Truly awful.
- Foreign Body by Robin Cook (Putnam) - subtitled "Has anyone seen my hedgetrimmers?"
- My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco) - flat out ugly.
- Man in the Dark by Paul Auster (Henry Holt) - good book, bad, bad cover.

Winner of The Book Catapult's Worst Book Title of 2008:

Hot Mahogany by Stuart Woods (Putnam) - This is the book that started all of this. What the hell is this title supposed to mean? Anyone? Mr. Woods, are you out there?

Runners up:

- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial Press) - as a bookseller, I have heard every variation of this title, not one of them even remotely correct. In fact, I didn't know that the word "peel" was in there until last week.
- Three Shirt Deal by Stephen J. Cannell (St. Martins) - author also responsible for A-Team scripts, FYI.
- The Complete Idiots Guide to Snack Cakes by Leslie Bilderback (Penguin) - I don't know if this one is bad, per se, but just hilariously stupid.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

2008 National Book Award Winners

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are:

Fiction: Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

Nonfiction: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Poetry: Fire to Fire by Mark Doty

Young People's Literature: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

I can't say much about the other categories, not being a strong enough reader or critic of them to be able to honestly weigh in, but the fiction selection...this seems like the worst thing that could have happened to the book industry. Peter Matthiessen wrote the three components of this "novel" in the 1990's - the first almost twenty years ago - published them separately to no great acclaim or accolades, and moved on. Now, in 2008, a version of these three novels is re-edited by Matthiessen and re-published by Random House's Modern Library, and is somehow deemed the best work of fiction written in the United States for the current year? A travesty. I have already complained about the selected finalists - there are, of course, glaring omissions to this and, really, any list of award finalists - but at least the other four had been written sometime in the current century. I know I'm reading way too much into this, but what message is this sending, both to the reader and the writer alike? Would it be okay if Cormac McCarthy re-edited his Border Trilogy, rereleased it, and won the National Book Award again? How about Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe books? Can those be resubmitted as one huge tome? Let's let George Lucas throw all the Star Wars films into one huge mess and see if he wins an Oscar.

I just feel "bad" for Marilynne Robinson, Aleksandar Hemon, Rachel Kushner, and Salvatore Scibona, because, although they have the amazing distinction of being National Book Award finalists, they lost to a rehashed trilogy from the previous decade that never should have made it as far as it did - I don't care how good it is.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ninja Redesign

The good people over at Book Ninja hosted a book jacket re-design contest last month - won by this hilarious reimagining of The Road, designed by Ingrid Paulson. Imagine the utter terror that soccer moms everywhere would encounter within this Nicholas Sparks version. Brilliant.

Other favorites include the Sarah Palin Confederacy of Dunces, the "gay cowboy" version of Blood Meridian, and the Baen Books inspired On the Road. Check it out.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Merry Apocalypse Everyone!

As if the failing economy wasn't enough to keep people out of bookstores this holiday season.... Crazed fascist right-wing radio host Glenn Beck has found it necessary to create this abomination of publishing - his attempt to tap into the annual soft, squishy Christmas novel market: The Christmas Sweater.

Ah, the story of a stupid twelve year old boy named Eddie who tragically receives a sweater from his mother for Christmas instead of a bike. This ruins his life.

"Scarred deeply by the realization that kids don't always get what they want, and too young to understand that he already owned life's most valuable treasures, that Christmas morning was the beginning of Eddie's dark and painful journey on the road to manhood. It will take wrestling with himself, his faith, and his family — and the guidance of a mysterious neighbor named Russell — to help Eddie find his path through the storm clouds of life and finally see the real significance of that simple gift his mother had crafted by hand with love in her heart."

"Storm clouds of life"? Barf. It somehow makes this all the more nauseating knowing that it poured forth from a hatemonger like Beck. Here's some Beck background: the book is published by Threshold Editions - the same pub that brought us Jerome Corsi's Obama Swift Boat book that attempted to divide an undividable country over the summer. Beck has made the "socialist" label for Obama (and presumably the 66,624,424 of us who voted for him) his rallying cry - he even has a pathetic video on his website featuring the liberal socialists praising the "messiah" with a plodding Soviet era anthem. Even worse, he has called the people who remained in New Orleans after Katrina "scumbags" that he hates more than 9/11 victims' families. ("And when I see a 9-11 victim family on television, or whatever, I'm just like, "Oh shut up!" I'm so sick of them because they're always complaining.") You get the idea. That's some big hate there - writing a lame book about a boy who hates his mother isn't going to undo all that. I know it sounds naive, but I just can't understand how someone can tell himself that he's capable of writing a feel-good story about faith and family while he makes a living tearing down people who don't support the NRA. Its insane. Sad and insane.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer (Review)

Olen Steinhauer's latest novel, The Tourist (St. Martin's Minotaur), isn't due to hit the shelves until March 3, 2009, but since the publishing world loves to taunt me with Advance Reading Copies 6 or 7 months out from the pub date, I have no choice but to read & review. What else can I do?

Steinhauer is best known - although, not very well known at all yet - for his series of detective novels set in an unnamed Eastern bloc nation, spanning the decades from the 40's to the 80's. The Bridge of Sighs, The Confession, and last year's Victory Square mark the highlights of the 5-part series that has put Steinhauer on the crime noir map, earning him 2 Edgar Award nominations and substantial critical acclaim, not to mention my undying loyalty as a fan. In March, his first novel set outside of his series hits the shops - The Tourist is a taught, well-paced modern spy novel that threatens to finally launch Olen onto the bestseller lists and into the hands of le Carre readers everywhere.

I think that the only reason I picked this book up in the first place was because of Olen Steinhauer's name on the cover - his previous novels are some of my favorite books to put in the hands of mystery readers looking for an author they have never read, but this one is somewhat outside his usual vein. The Confession is among the best crime novels I've read in the last decade, but more for its depth of character and its departure from traditional crime novel pacing than for a crime-solving plot. For similar reasons, The Tourist breaks from the traditional spy novel genre and offers a compelling look at the spy trade of the new, post-9/11 world.

What happens to spies and assassins when the CIA begins to make budgetary cuts? Is there really a place in this new global society for James Bond-types? There is an unusual degree of what feels like actual reality in Steinhauer's spy-world - a breath of fresh air for the genre. Too many spy novels are simply that: novels with spies as protagonists. They attempt to impress you by navigating through a complex plot involving murdering a high level government official and rescuing so-and-so, yadda yadda yadda. Fine for reading when you're trapped on the subway and all you can find to read is the wall or a discarded Clancy novel, but not much for furthering your literary intelligence. Steinhauer offers something more - situations that are entirely feasible in the world that we all actually inhabit. What would happen if Congress realized that it was stretching its military budget too thin and noticed that the CIA was keeping deep cover operatives on retainer all over the civilized world?

Milo Weaver is a former "tourist" - one of those anonymous deep cover operatives - who has left the world of international espionage behind for a wife, a family, and a desk job. When sent out into the field one last time - always a harbinger of doom - he is forced to analyze where his loyalties lie, who his true friends are, and whether his enemies truly are just that. Sounds like standard spy-fare, to be sure, but it is the sheer modernity of this tale and Steinhauer's crisp writing that brings it home. In light of the past 8 years of the Bush administration, it somehow doesn't seem that far-fetched to think that there is a mid-level puppetmaster somewhere in the layers of government, working toward their own skewed agenda.

This is by no means Steinhauer's finest work - Milo is a bit stilted as a leading man and some of the finer plot points seem to be a bit of a stretch at times. (The man atop the international terrorist watch list is, of course, a former CIA operative gone horribly rogue. And the old "Trusted friend turns traitor, other trusted friend manipulates protagonist, who realizes his mistake and clears first friend's name while he turns on the other friend" storyline. Didn't see that one coming.) Are these issues and cliches simply genre issues? Maybe so - perhaps these are unavoidable, even in a well-crafted book such as this, simply because that's the name of the game if you plan on writing a spy novel. But overall, this all works as a fine, modern espionage novel with enough literary machinations to keep even the most jaded reader entertained.

And if the book sales lag, there's always George Clooney to pick up the slack - he has already aquired the film rights to The Tourist.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

We are the ones we've been waiting for...

"This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."