Thursday, December 25, 2008

Intocht van Sinterklaas!

I was just sitting around with my family on this blustery, 60-degree Southern Californian Christmas Day, reading David Sedaris holiday stories out loud for a laugh. Here's his "Six to Eight Black Men" story about Christmas in the Netherlands. The creepy Dutch Christmas fable picqued my interest. Sinterklaas lives in Spain and arrives in the Netherlands each November by steamship. He is accompanied by several black-faced ("Zwarte Peit") assistants (possibly Moorish in origin) who throw candy into the waiting crowds. (This event actually happens and is show on television like a bowl game.) For the resultant holiday, if children are good, Sinterklaas and his team fill their shoes with candy. Bad children may either get beaten by a chimney sweep broom, have their shoes filled with salt or small sticks rather than candy, or may be thrown in a gunny sack and taken back to Spain for the rest of the year. Happy Sinterklaas!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seth's Notable List 2008

Every book blog has a "top-whatever" list for the end of the year - the Book Catapult is no exception, this being the third annual such list. So, maybe you're sick of lists and think that they have no intrinsic value, everyone has one, so what's the point, yadda yadda, bah humbug - well, too bad - these are the books that I would like to champion for the year. Deal with it, friend.

These are the ten best books of the 45 or so that I, Seth Marko, read during the calendar year of aught-8. If you have not read them, either go find them at your local library or head down to your local independent bookstore (and there IS one near you somewhere) and buy one or two of these yourself. If you read this blog and buy your books from Amazon or one of the big box stores, under the auspices of "saving money", I think you're missing the point. Does anyone from those places offer you such stunning book recommendations? I think not....

City of Thieves by David Benioff

What else can I say about this book that I haven't already said? (Here's the full review from back in May.) Easily the best book I read all year, yet this was somehow snubbed by all the major awards - no Pulitzer, National Book, no New York Times Notable - although it was named the Book of the Year by the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA), of which, of course, I am a member. Benioff's writing is amazingly crisp and vibrant, bringing remarkable life to his characters - leading men Lev & Kolya are hilarious, humble, emotional, and real, real, real. The story is absurd, really - one of a search for eggs during the WWII siege of Leningrad, to stave off execution, rather than starvation, and of an undying friendship forged under the harshest of circumstances. Benioff has been critically accused of pretentiousness in light of his familial connections within the story itself, but this is nothing but bitterness and sour grapes. He is a magician with the written word, there's no doubt about it. If there's oonly one book that you go out and purchase for yourself this year, this has got to be the one.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Another book that I have written about quite a bit here on the Catapult. This was the surprising recipient of the 2008 Man Booker Prize - I had thought it to be far to edgy for the Booker crowd - and now a huge national bestseller as a result. The story of lower caste dweller, Balram Halwi - the type of man who will buck the system, throw off the shackles of oppression, kill his boss, and seize his true entrepreneurial destiny. Tired of accepting his fate every time an election is fixed (the three main diseases in India are “typhoid, cholera, & election fever”) or a rich man’s crime is pinned on him, Balram acts as our guide through a caste system world that most westerners don’t even know exists.

The Boat by Nam Le

A great debut collection of short stories - named a NYT Notable book for the year and one I reviewed for KPBS, back when I was still doing that. Le's stories are disparately different on the surface, but there is a subtle connection - humanity, grace, and identity, I suppose - that runs through them all, inextricably linking them together. The first and the last stories are the strongest - they serve as solid bookends for the collection, telling tales of post- and pre-immigrations. An author to keep tabs on.

Breath by Tim Winton
Another that I have reviewed here on the Catapult - sadly snubbed by the Booker commitee in 2008. The more time that goes by since my reading this book - back in July - the more I realize that it's really staying with me. I wasn't crazy about the ending, but not in a "man he really blew that one" type of way, but it felt a little forced, a bit rushed to the presses, if you know what I mean. The meat of the book, though, had me totally engrossed - Winton's capturing of that magical, indefinable element to surfing and laying it all out there for you in erudite, brilliant prose that makes this well worth the read. And one of the best books I read this year, clearly.

Cross by Ken Bruen
Would there be a Seth's Notable List without a book by Ken? One of the best Jack Taylor books - here's my review from March (Jack's "is an emotional decline that is palpable, visceral. Since you live in his head for the duration, the emotions feel, somehow, more raw, more tangible.") With a comment left by the man himself, Mr. Ken Bruen. Still pretty proud of that post.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

A crazy, crazy book about ninjas and mimes and the end of the world as we know it, with a plot twist that even the most jaded, sci-fi junky nerd wouldn't see coming. In my earlier review, I said: 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?

Black Flies by Shannon Burke

A NYT Notable Book for 2008 - received an outstanding review by Liesl Schillinger in their Book Review, which is how I noticed this little indie gem from Soft Skull Press. This is a raw novel, man. As in, you feel rubbed raw by it's gritty, real-world atmosphere and it's harrowing exposure of what happens to trauma experts when they're exposed to too much trauma. The plot is really just a year in the life of NYC paramedic, Ollie Cross - and the general mental descent that that year involves. Burke once worked as a paramedic above 125th street in Harlem (after leaving a similar existence in New Orleans) – it is this resume item that allows him to write this novel with such visceral, resonant reality. In fact, knowing this, it reads more like a memoir than some memoirs of recent publication - you know that Burke is not making this stuff up, and that is some scary shit. Watching Ollie’s 11-month descent from med school-bound rookie to world-weary, shattered battlefield medic is swift & shocking, but seeing him decide whether to pull himself up off the street is even more arresting and profound. A surprisingly moving novel about the people who save our lives every day & are too often overlooked.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo
Beautiful, lyrical, flowing, hypnotic, and ethereal. Bajo received almost no critical attention for this debut - I'm really not sure why, actually. It's sort of a smarter, sexier version of Shadow of the Wind, if I may be so cliche. When Irma mysteriously disappears one day, she leaves behind all 351 books in her library for Philip. He uses his own mathematical formula for selecting the order in which to read them, to better understand where Irma may have gone. There is a certain mystery element here, but, like it does with Philip, this becomes secondary to learning more about who Irma and Philip are, both together and apart. A great, mult-faceted love story.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

I have had the hardest time writing a full review of this monster - every other critic has given it raving, I-just-drank-the-Bolano-kool-aid-type reviews, presumably out of the fear that their lack of complete understanding of his book will be exposed. (With the exception, of course, of Jonathan Lethem's NY Times review - of course he gets it, he's the man.) It's a vast tome of a brain-twister in every sense, that pulses with a writer's lifetime of experiences to deliver a broad, sweeping vision of the fragility of life and the imminence of death. A handful, to be sure. Every review has made a point of mentioning that Bolano never lived to see his 900-page magnum opus published, having succumbed to liver disease in 2005 at the age of 50, as a way of explaining the themes to his final novel. I don't know, I think maybe we're reading into those themes moreso because of his untimely death, but it surely loans a certain weight to the book, knowing his history a bit. But what is it really about, you ask? Good question. There are five distinct sections - separate novellas, really - that interconnect to complete the whole. Four scholars pursue an elusive German novelist to the border town of Santa Teresa, Mexico where they meet a widowed philosoper - who goes a little crazy (in my opinion) in the border town of Santa Teresa, where his daughter meets - an American reporter investigating the murders of dozens of women in the border town of Santa Teresa, (see a theme here?) where a police detective struggles to solve the unsolvable murders of now hundreds of women in Santa Teresa. And the life story of the elusive German author, Benno von Archimbaldi, is revealed - leading him, of course, to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. Have I scared you off yet? It's kind of a bigger, heavier, more daunting version of Cloud Atlas - not for everyone, but a magnificent novel if you can give it the appropriate time to mull through.

To Siberia by Per Petterson

A beautifully written novel of mid-century life in the far reaches of Denmark, by the acclaimed author of Out Stealing Horses, last year's indie-press surprise and a runaway bestseller. I haven't read Horses, but if it's written half as well as To Siberia, this guy's a truly remarkable talent. Petterson has a certain flow to his prose that comes out like an exhalation into winter air - comforting warmth in a landscape of utter cold. There is a palpable, ethereal, dreamy quality to the writing, similar in some ways to David Bajo's writing, and is one of those books that helps you escape out of your life and into that of the characters. Very nicely done.

There you have it. Have a nice holiday season, thanks for checking on the Catapult, and go out and read some books!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nothin' But Rants

This past weekend, in an op-ed column for the New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote of the karmic unfairness of Joe the Plumber's impending book release this month. "The Plumber", in actuality Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, the mongoloid, unlicensed pipefitter who badgered Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Ohio, has managed to write a 192-page book and get it published, albeit by a suspiciously self-promoting publishing house (Joe's publisher, PearlGate, has 2 books: Joe's and his co-author's).

"The idea that someone who stumbled into a sound bite can be published, and charge $24.95 for said words, makes so many real writers think the world is unfair."

True enough Mr. Egan - there is something intrinsically WRONG about someone like Wurzelbacher getting a book published before someone who's toiled over their work for years, only to be rejected time and again by publishers everywhere. In this case, he stumbled into his 15 minutes and has managed to drag us all into it for a half an hour by convincing some doofus to publish his inane drivel - all under the ruse that this is what "The People" want. Hell, his website (yes, he has a website) is called Secure Our (whatever that means) where for $19.95 you can sign up to be a Freedom Member and "become an integral part of an American movement to preserve our American Dream". Man, when does that 15 minutes end?

" friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money."

Even worse than Joe the Bummer, however, is this: How to Talk to Girls by Alec Greven, a nine-year old boy from Colorado - available at self-loathing bookstores everywhere. Nine, dude! This kid is nine years old! Seriously, what could he possibly have to tell anyone about women? He has never kissed a girl, gone on a date, seen a woman naked, other than his mom, or possibly grandma. I understand that this most likely started out as a sappy, cute, jokey book, and it's part of my hard-hearted nature (see My Life with George) to hate things like this, but HarperCollins has signed him to at least three more books - How to Talk to Dads and How to Talk to Moms, among them, both due out in 2009. And, 20th Century Fox (a subsidiary of News Corp, as is Harper) has optioned the rights to the film. The film! Did I mention he's nine? Alec began writing his book when he was 8 (last year) as a writing project for his third grade class! AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

It's all just wrong. I know life is unfair, but this is ridiculous. What is it about the buying public that makes them crave such utter garbage while there are writers out there - even ones with book deals and published works - who can't seem to get anyone to read their brilliant books. Sorry Alec, I'm sure you're a very nice boy, but I simply resent you. You and Joe the Plumber have wandered into a world that has brainwashed everyone into thinking that your junk is what they want to read. What happened to literature? Which magnificent books got passed over by HarperCollins this year so that they could make room in their catalog for your little book? How can that be fair? In actuality, Alec, you're being exploited by Harper and Fox - although I'm sure you've gotten a pretty sweet deal on all this - who're just trying to capitalize on your naive musings on the opposite sex, of which you can't possibly know anything about. Believe me, I was a nine year-old boy once. And man, kids in college are going to make fun of you - I know I would - once you're a decade or so beyond this, you're never going to be able to live it down. "Yo Grevan, tell me again how to talk to your mom?"

"...publishers say they print garbage so that real literature, which seldom makes any money, can find its way into print. True, to a point. But some of them print garbage so they can buy more garbage."

I'm sure that there's a place for Alec Grevan out there, but it's just hard to swallow, knowing that there are brilliant novels out there that will never be published, because publishers like Harper have us convinced that we need How to Talk to Girls instead. Yeah, I'm a bitter, hate-filled man, but what are you gonna do?

Jacket Add-on

Here's a late addition to the Catapult's Best Book Jacket Awards for 2008: Carrie Fisher's memoir, Wishful Drinking. Hilarious.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Take Me to a Happy Place

Jenny and the Book - by Seth MarkoI hate to always seemingly get my book-related news stories from a single source, but it's hard to ignore the power of the New York Times Book Review and their various lists. Every year, they produce what they have annointed as the Ten Best Books published for the year - I can't count how many customers I've met over the years who either wanted select titles from the top ten or would only purchase books with the little "New York Times Notable Book" sticker on them or were carrying the actual torn-out list itself in their sweaty little grip with the hope of purchasing the whole dectet. Today the Times' Ten Best Books for 2008 list was announced - 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction, selected from their 100 Notable Books List. The fiction are: Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The nonfiction are: The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, The World Is What It Is by Patrick French.

Great. I don't agree with the list as a whole (I've only read one of them), but I can respect their selections, based on the presumed merit of the works themselves. Lists are always opinionated. And I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth - there's no denying the power behind this list as it's certain to help bookstore sales everywhere. I'm sure that the editors of the Times know what they're doing, right? Yes. As a matter of fact, they do.

The problem actually stems from where these books all originated - nine of the ten were published by pub-behemoth Random House. Nine. Bolano's book was the lone holdout as a Farrar, Straus, & Giroux title. And that one was pretty much a no brainer anyway - a super-hyped, literary tome by a dead Chilean? I mean, come on. But I'm supposed to buy the story that Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus supposedly sifted through all the books written this year, by every publisher out there, and decided that 9 of the 10 best came from one single source? Somewhat suspicious, at best. The written word is entirely subjective, of course, and every reader is entitled to draw their own conclusions regarding the value of the books they read. But as an educated, well-read person, with a certain basic level of knowledge of the book industry, what conclusion am I supposed to draw from Tanenhaus's selections, other than that he is firmly in the pocket of someone over at Random House? The whole thing just stinks.

I'm being uncharacteristicly polite over this, I know, and it's because Ed Champion has gone there already on his Reluctant Habits blog. How can I top his beautifully pornographic hate rant?