Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Jibber-Jabber

As I try to juggle writing this blog, the Warwick's blog, pieces for KPBS's Culture Lust blog with packing my house for a cross-town move and reading 3 books at once, like an idiot, (Foer's Eating Animals, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, & Orhan Pamuk's dense tome, The Museum of Innocence) today I thought I'd just link to my short plea for independent bookstores over at my work blog. Feel free.

Other stuff of note:
  • Random House's desperate-looking use of a blurb by the late Robertson Davies on the jacket of John Irving's new book made me laugh. Living critics used phrases like "the most disappointing wipeout of Irving's career" (Ron Charles, Washington Post) and "clunkety-clunk-clunk" (Entertainment Weekly). Probably a wise choice to use the dead guy.
  • Publishers Weekly announced their first ever Top Ten books of the year, snubbing every woman who wrote a book in 2009. The list does include The Lost City of Z, though!
  • Penguin's much anticipated, beautifully done new set of hardcover classics hit the shelves this week - check it.
  • The big box retailers - Amazon, Target, and Walmart - that are severely discounting several new titles in November have decided to limit the number of copies one can purchase. The reasoning? Word got out that indie booksellers were planning on using the stores as distributors, cleaning out their stock, since the discounts are going to be so steep. Foiled again!
  • And it's the first Tuesday in November, so Al Gore has a new book - Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis - as does David Plouffe, campaign manager of Obama For America. I might read them both, actually. Just not this weekend.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Crazy King Philip

Has the esteemed Philip Roth, one of our most respected living American novelists, gone insane, at age 76?  In this interview (see below) with Tina Brown, lately of The Daily Beast, Roth plays harbinger of doom and announces the death of the printed word - coming to you in the next 25 years.

Roth predicts that the culture of the book will be relegated to the darkened caves in the society of the future, there being little place for the printed word in a world dominated by television screens and computer monitors. While I agree that the bound book is headed for a major change in readership, his ideology that most modern humans lack the concentration and focus to be able to read a novel, thus being the impetus for the impending doom, is somewhat absurd. Is the number of casual readers (those reading for "fun") in the world, per capita, so different now than at any other point in history? Can we really make a blanket statement like, "people just don't read anymore", when there are so many more of us out there than ever before?

There are readers among us (hello!) who take umbrage at being referred to, even hypothetically, as "cultish" for preferring the bound book, as opposed to viewing or reading books on a "screen". Or worse yet, he equates the potential numbers of bound book readers in the future to be similar to the numbers that today "read Latin poetry". The weird part about his prediction is that he doesn't think e-readers will have a positive effect on readership at all - as if it is already too late for humanity.

"The book can't compete with the screen. It couldn't compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn't compete with the television screen, and it can't compete with the computer screen. Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn't measure up." (excerpted from The Guardian, UK)
Despite all that, the craziest, most alienating thing uttered by Mr. Roth was this: "If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really."  As if to somehow highlight his "fact" that people lack the proper concentration for novel reading. (Note that Roth's last three books have all been novella-sized. Coincidence?) I read fairly fast, but I guarantee that in over 2 weeks, I will still be reading Orhan Pamuk's new book. Does anyone out there think that I lack the "concentration, focus, and devotion to the reading" necessary to be a reader? You see Mr. Roth, books written by Nobel Prize winners should be savored for longer than 2 weeks. Sorry.

Tina Brown Asks Philip Roth About the Future of the Novel from The Daily Beast Video on Vimeo.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Grub Street

Grub Street, a Boston-area non-profit creative writing center, has an annual "From the Desk Of" postcard auction, where they mail 30 authors blank 5x7 postcards and give them free reign to do whatever they want to them. The resulting artwork is offered up for auction on their site - This year's amazing crop includes postcards by Alice Hoffman (her postcard is seen here), Lorrie Moore, Susan Orlean, Daniel Wallace, Stewart O'Nan, Amy Hempel, Matthew Pearl, Elizabeth Strout, and Mr. Ron Carlson. Check it out - the bidding prices are fairly modest, so don't be shy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jesus' Son: Not Really About Jesus

"Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I'm fine."

While trapped on an airplane travelling from Detroit to San Diego last week, I read Denis Johnson's short story collection, Jesus' Son, cover to cover. This came on the heels of James Welch's Winter in the Blood, which shares a bit of a thematic thread with Johnson's short pieces about alcoholic, drug-addled fools living amidst the stink of America's sweaty underbelly. (Sounds harsh, I know, but that's what they're about.) Welch's Native American characters are almost all alcoholics, to a one, yet Winter is by no means an alcoholic's tale, nor is it particulary about addiction or the ramifications of having such an addiction. Johnson's stories however, are definitely about addiction and excess, there's no doubt about it. And addiction sucks.

It seems that a lot of Johnson's research for these stories can be directly traced to his experiences in Berkeley, California in the early-70's, living homeless, poor, and in search of drugs & beer. (Check out his brilliant New Yorker piece "Homeless and High" from 2002)  The characters of JS are all pretty deplorable, fairly stupid, poor decision-making alcoholics and drug addicts, but Johnson's skill for dialogue and rendering of true human nature makes each rather outstanding. Here's a run down:

Car Crash While Hitchhiking:  Just a glimpse into the sad sort of life the narrator leads - he's in the back seat of a family's car, sleeping off some hashish and speed, when they get into a violent collision late at night on an anonymous highway. "I lay out in the grass off the exit ramp and woke in the middle of a puddle that had filled up around me."

Two Men:  Upon leaving a dance at the local VFW, the paranoid narrator (most likely the first appearence of the character/narrator known as "Fuckhead") and his two friends find a drunken man sleeping in the back seat of his beat up Volkswagon. The man indicates through hand motions that he cannot speak or hear, but needs a ride home. FH and his companions comply and drive the man to several addresses where he is denied entrance, before arriving at some sort of farmhouse where they ditch him. FH then becomes obsessed with chasing down a dealer who sold him some "weird stuff", which leads to an uncomfortable conclusion.

Out on Bail:  Heroin has no happy endings.  "He simply went under. He died. I am still alive."

Dundun:  "I went to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck."  Fuckhead instead ends up driving Dundun and McInnes, who has been shot in the stomach by Dundun, around in his car until McInnes dies. "I'm glad he's dead. He's the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead."

Work:  "All the really good times happened when Wayne was around." Our narrator wanders into a bar one morning & meets up with Wayne, who offers him some work. The work consists of breaking into an abandoned home (Wayne claims, "This is my house.") and stripping all the copper from the wiring inside. Just as they finish, they see a nude woman with long red hair parasailing above the river. Then, back to the bar and the "grace and generosity" of the bartender.

Emergency:  The best of the bunch, in my opinion. Fuckhead is working as an orderly in an emergency room when a man is admitted with a hunting knife "buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye". Georgie, another pill-popping orderly, calmly removes the knife while waiting for the surgical staff to arrive. FH and Georgie then leave on a "fear & loathing" sort of car ride, getting lost in the snow, accidentally killing rabbits, wandering in graveyards, picking up hitchhikers.

Dirty Wedding:  There's something unsettling about this story - in comparison with the others, which all have similar characters, I can't put my finger on what it is about this guy that so unnerves me. Written as sort of a reminisce about the time the heroin-addicted narrator dropped his pregnant girlfriend off at an abortion clinic and then left to ride the elevated trains all night, searching the darker corners of his city for more skag. "When I coughed I saw fireflies."

The Other Man:  The narrator meets a man on the Puget Sound ferry who is pretending to be from Poland. Then he meets a woman "drunker than (he) was". The end?  I don't get this one.

Happy Hour:  "During Happy Hour, when you pay for one drink, he gives you two. Happy Hour lasts two hours."

Steady Hands at Seattle General:  Perhaps the best example available of Johnson's amazing knack for hilarious, drug-addled dialogue. It's only 4 pages - just pick the book up in the bookstore and read this while you're standing in the aisle. I guarantee you'll buy the book when you finish.

Beverly Home:  "All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us."

After gaining notoriety for Jesus' Son in 1992 (see below) and fading back into the ether, Johnson roared back onto the national scene with his 2007 novel, Tree of Smoke, winner of the the National Book Award, finalist for the Pulitzer, and a 2007 Notable Book on this prestigious site. Johnson's work is not for everyone - I would think that a lot of the soccer moms who bought Tree of Smoke probably never got real far - but this collection especially resonates with the grim reality of a life of addition and general seediness.  These are not people you want to know, but they are out there - and they're closer than you think.

I just discovered, while Googling the title of this book, that some of these stories were incorporated into the 1999 film, Jesus' Son starring Billy Crudup as Fuckhead. Damn, behind the curve again! How did I miss that? Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, and Dennis Leary were in that too? Hell, even Denis Johnson himself has a cameo as Terrence Weber, seen here with a knife in his eyeball. Oh well, its not as if anyone gets their news from the Book Catapult. Is this thing on?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some Thoughts on James Welch

I had a friend leave me a note with a copy of the book, Winter in the Blood by James Welch, that read, "Tell me what you think of this little book - it speaks a sad & honest language to me."  Well...

Welch's 1974 novel is a sad, lean, & powerful tale of a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, drinking, fighting, lusting, wandering, searching for the identity of both himself and his people, whether he's aware of that fact or not. There is an unblinking, unflinching honesty to the story that keeps its eye trained on the narrator and his life, in all it's bitter emptiness.  
I began to laugh, at first quietly, with neither bitterness nor humor. It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance.  "'re the one." I laughed, as the secret unfolded itself. "The only, her hunter..." And the wave behind my eyeballs broke.

Yellow Calf still looked off toward the east as though the wind could wash the wrinkles from his face.
It is not a bleak tale, really, but rather one of stark truth - one which we fear to look upon, yet cannot break away from. It is one that lodges firmly in your reader-mind not for its tragedy, but for its simple, honest reality. It is not "about" the plight of Native America - the life the narrator leads is one reached by choice, not just circumstance of birth. He has chosen his life of drink and wanderlust - and it is his choice whether to leave that life behind or not. Never did I sense the soapbox being shuffled into view from off stage - in fact, it never even occurred to me until I had finished, how devoid of politics and worldly events this story really is. It is sad and tragic for it's simple facts - life, lust, death.

Yet, as with most tales, there is at least a glimmer of hope and redemption, ultimately. It's not as if the narrator comes full circle, embraces his roots, and comes to realize who he really is - the steps are small and uncertain, but steps they are. The final two scenes - the cow in the mud and the funeral - are particulary poignant in illuminating this man's path towards the next step in his life. He is not changed as we would hope, but changed he is - can it really be for the worse?

I was surprised at the power of this little book that I had never heard of and its powerful, honest portrayal of a man who is good and true, at his core, even if he himself has never noticed.

"To be loyal to the earth and to the dead who loved you, to found yourself in all that is most dear, to observe without judging and write from your own direct core, is not ever the fashion. But it is always the right thing to do. Truth wears well, and Winter in the Blood is a true book." -Louise Erdrich, from the introduction to James Welch's Winter in the Blood.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Seth Marko Wins 2010 Booker Prize!

I would just like to extend a thank you - and maybe apologize a little - to all the folks who visited The Book Catapult this week who were Google-searching for information on the 2009 Booker Prize. As you are no doubt aware by now, Ken Bruen is not actually the winner of the 2009 Booker Prize, despite the information I had provided in the title of my post from August 2008, "Ken Bruen Wins 2009 Booker Prize!"  This post was actually about the controversy surrounding the 2008 Booker longlist, which included a "thriller" genre entry, hence the facitious title to the post itself. Yes, a joke, but one which has catapulted, if you will, this blog to the top of Google searchs for "2009 Booker" or "Booker Prize 2009" or variations thereof. Even though you were mislead in visiting the Catapult, I sincerely hope that you enjoyed your stay. Your visits on this past Tuesday - the day of the actual 2009 Booker Prize announcement - made it the most heavily trafficked day in Book Catapult history. I don't know if I'm happy or depressed by this fact...

Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, is the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, just in case there are people out there still landing on this site looking for that information. You can read my piece on this subject, as well as my thoughts on the obscure selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature and the meaning of such awards, over on the Warwick's blog.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The $150,000 Orwell Novel

Justin Gawronski, the Michigan teenager who sued back in August when they removed his e-copy of 1984, along with all of his homework on the subject, from his Kindle, (see earlier posts here and here) has been awarded $150,000 in his lawsuit. After paying his legal fees, he plans on stupidly donating the rest to charity, but that's beside the point. Jeff Bezos is out 150 g's and has had a whole lot of bad PR.  Good times.

I guess it remains to be seen if Amazon has 1) learned anything from all of this - which I doubt, judging by the relatively piddling amount they've had to pay out or if they've 2) circled the wagons so that they can remotely access the Kindles without people noticing. I know I'm being dramatic when I talk about Big Brother and all that (although, the choice of book was absurdly perfect for that purpose) but I still think this whole deal is cause for genuine concern. Before his lawsuit, Gawronski said, "Amazon has just proven that when I buy a book on the Kindle, I don't really own it." That's what's scary here.  Me, I'm stickin' with paper books.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow

Maybe I shouldn't have researched the Collyer brothers prior to reading this novel. (By research, I mean wikipedia.) And I probably should have changed the channel when the A&E program, Hoarders came on. This may have skewed my perspective of the lives of the real people fictionalized by E.L. Doctorow in Homer & Langley.  As it is, their story is sad, sad, sad as they say.

Doctorow, long one of my favorites, has a certain penchant for history - whether the roaring-20's of Billy Bathgate or Sherman's March of the 1860's and so on - he draws an immaculate, vivid picture of the world in that time period and populates it - often with historical figures - with incredibly well-drawn, if unlikable characters. Homer and Langley Collyer are not necessarily the greatest guys or the most appealing people on earth (certainly not Langley) but their story is compulsively compelling if for nothing but it's train-wreck appeal. (Can't stop looking! So much garbage in the house!) The life they chose is one which is hard to comprehend for the average human: born into the New York upper crust of the turn of the 20th century, they chose to seal themselves off from the world amid the squalor of their townhouse, their quality of life steadily degrading with the passage of time.

Over a 50 year span, with virtually no prompting from the outside world, the brothers - crazed, WWI vet Langley and blind, innocent Homer - collected every manner of object, paper, or item that either of them deemed necessary. A full Model-T in the living room, multiple pianos for Homer to play, and oh my god, the newspapers - the literal foundation of their empire of squalor. Langley was convinced (most likely from his experience breathing mustard gas during the war) that news could be condensed down to a few basic, archetypal storylines. He believed that every human story repeated itself so much that one could print a newspaper for all time, so to speak, with articles that would pertain to any possible story that could ever happen, anywhere. This paper would need to be published just one time, ever, since the stories are so cyclical. To research every possible storyline, in order to print such a masterpiece of humanity, Langley needed to read and keep, in perpetuity, every single newspaper printed in New York City. The Collyer home was eventually stacked, quite literally, floor to ceiling with these papers - a fact that would lead to their eventual demise.

I think that Doctorow's telling of the Collyer story is a shockingly true account of the lives of the real men themselves. There may be some slight differences (Homer was paralyzed at the end of his life, but perhaps not deaf, for example) but the real story is so fantastical, so hard to comprehend, that there was hardly a need to fictionalize any of it, it seems. Doctorow skillfully brings these people back to life - not necessarily out of his own head this time, but more from the ashes of American folklore, which is where their incredible story has ended up residing. Homer exudes such a simple innocence throughout his brother's madness that you cannot help but sympathize with his plight - a plight only made liveable by the simple fact that he cannot see any of it.  Again though, this fact is ultimately the undoing of both men and their odd, symbiotic relationship. The final paragraph - without spoiling anything for you - is one of the most arresting I have ever read, anywhere. Even though I knew how the real story of the Collyers ended, Doctorow's prose stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth agape. These men were magestic fodder for the very newspapers they collected - a story so bizarre, that even Langley couldn't possibly have found room amongst his archetypal "newspaper for all time".