Monday, November 30, 2009

The Top Whatever of Whenever by Whoever

Every year around this time "we" - bloggers, reviewers, booksellers, readers, librarians, people with nothing better to do - start to discuss the pros & cons, the pluses & minuses, the acknowledgments & the snubs of the vast array of Top 10, Best Books, or Notable lists that are published by all the newspapers, blogs, magazines, and people with nothing better to do, myself included. We all love a good list - better yet, we all love to hate a bad list. When we do not like a list, we shake our heads, complain bitterly, and often run home, snot-faced & crying, to formulate our own list. (I am, of course, diligently working on my 4th annual Seth's Notable List - coming later this week.)  As fodder for the list you may be tabulating in your own little head, here is a short list of some of the "best books of the year" (and some "decade") lists that have been announced to date:

  • The New York Times notable list isn't half bad this time around, although it did omit Catapult favorites Reif Larsen and Ron Currie in favor of NYT contributors, Jonathan Lethem and Nicholson Baker. Ms. Kakutani's personal list is surprisingly quite nice, including The Lost City of Z and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Although Janet Maslin has tossed her own credibility out the window - at least with me - by choosing Stephen King's Under the Dome as one of the ten best books of the year....
  • PW's review editor, Louisa Ermelino: "It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male." The PW Top Ten.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle gets a few choice books onto their short little fiction list: Pynchon, Doctorow. Blows it a bit with all the omissions and the addition of the (in my opinion) unreadable Nicholson Baker novel.
What about you, buddy?  You got a favorite for 09?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Story of O, Concluded?

I would be remiss, I suppose, if I did not acknowledge Oprah's announcement last week that in 2011 she will be ending her run as Talk Show Queen of the Universe. Well, at least ending it in it's current format on CBS - she is starting up her own cable channel, The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), where it is presumed by many that she will host a new version of a talk show. But where does this leave the Oprah Book Club, I ask?

As a voracious reader by night and an independent bookseller by day, I have long had a love/hate thing going on with Oprah and her book selections. (For a good time, read the debate sparked on the Catapult by the Cormac pick in '07)  I have voiced a teensy little bit of resentment over her ability to force the hand of the book world so mightilly - out of pure self-preservation, we have to purchase her selections in advance of her announcements without knowing what the book will be. How do you know you won't get saddled with 50 copies of something crappy that no one wants to read? A moot point, really, as every book she has ever picked has done well enough to justify the numbers purchased. Her current Club pick, Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan has had modest sales, at best, although infinitely better than it had prior to O's involvement. The bottom line is - and this is a little hard for me to admit - Oprah gets people to read books, even if the snobby bookseller that I am resents the selections she makes - at least people are buying and reading.

So where will the industry land after O removes herself from the discourse?

Part of my Op-resentment has always had to do with her ability to get people to listen to her, unconditionally, and read the books she suggests, without questioning taste, either hers or theirs. Deep down inside, this is what every bookseller hopes for, but never achieves - if I were Oprah, Cloud Atlas would be a number one bestseller. So I'm just bitter. But, I will miss her when she's gone - unless, of course, she continues her book club selections on her new network, in which case, I will continue to harbor my mild resentment.  But if not, who will step up to tell the people what to read??!  Hello?  Is this thing on?

Honestly, this couldn't have come at a worse time for the indie bookseller - I suppose that if Oprah announced that she had purchased a Kindle...that might be worse.  Indies are trying to stay relevant in a world where the local marketplace is dwindling rapidly and more & more of our consumable goods are purchased from warehouse stores who only operate in cyberspace. Sadly, in this new world economy and electronic culture, we booksellers need someone - an advocate of sorts - to tell the people to read more books. Books made with paper and glue, sweat and ink. Is the independent bookseller that advocate? On a small, local scale, I'd certainly like to think so, but nationally....?

So, I don't have any answers to offer up in this post, just a lamentation for the possible dissolving of the only book club that pays my bills and recognizes the value of a simple book recommendation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Am Dead, Therefore, Publish

There's been a bit of discussion at Warwick's this week concerning dead authors and their posthumous works - an intensive, full-staff round-table discussion piece is under way for the Warwick's blog - stimulated by this week's publication of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. The debate is over whether it's moral or not to publish a posthumous work if the author left explicit instructions for all unfinished work to be destroyed upon their death, as was the case with Mr. Nabokov.

When Nabokov died in 1977, he instructed his family to destroy what he had written and left unfinished - which, as it turns out, included a series of 138 notecards (as was his drafting style) of notations and passages for Laura. His widow, Vera, could not bear to destroy what he had written, so she had it placed in a Swiss bank vault, where it sat until his son, Dimitri, decided in 2008 to try and publish. The resultant work is rough, at best, put together in fancy-Chip Kidd style by...Chip Kidd with reproductions of the notecards on each page, accompanied by typed text "translations" of V.N.'s handwriting. Nabokov had some sort of personal numbering system to the cards, but the true order is unknown, so Kidd made each card perforated, so that the reader can pop them out & rearrange them into any order they see fit. (Who would do this, in actuality, I don't know.) In their review back in July, PW noted that "It would be a mistake...for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel."  As a whole, I think it's fairly unreadable, relatively incomprehensible, and, well, unfinished, which is the point, really. I can see why Nabokov never wanted this to see the light of day - he wasn't done writing it.

The argument can certainly be made for the literary & social benefit of the posthumous work of other authors. We would never have the three full-length novels, The Trial, The Castle, or Amerika by Franz Kafka if his literary executor, Max Brod, had not ignored the author's wishes:
"Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread."
Is this moral, even in light of the work that was ultimately produced? I'm not so sure, even though the world may be a better place with those novels in it, who am I to go against the author's wishes? Perhaps when an author reaches a certain elevation in literary society, their posthumous work is fair game, but this was definitely not the case with Kafka during his lifetime. Some other well-known posthumous pubs:
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was published posthumously, although the author did try to publish it during her life.
  • I know some people who would be incomplete as human beings had Papa Hemingway's posthumous A Moveable Feast never been published - Ernest had completed a final draft upon his death, although his widow edited it extensively. A moral quandry, that.
  • I happen to disagree with the postumous publication of several "lost" Philip K. Dick novels in the last few years, which I was always under the impression that he did not want published. Although I'm a fan, I have not read these late additions and it's my understanding that they should have remained "lost".
  • There is an unfinished murder mystery by Graham Greene that has been serialized in Strand Magazine this year, although, I'm not sure how one publishes an unfinished murder mystery.... 
  • The unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison, previously published in 1999 in shorter form as Juneteenth, is being released in its full, original, chaotic 1200 pages and hits the shelves with a thud in January.
  • A 40-year old, faded, yellowed, manuscript of a literary thriller by the late Donald Westlake is being published in April 2010.
  • And David Foster Wallace's final novel, The Pale King, will be published late next year, although I'm not sure which of the many, many draft versions his executors decided to go with.
I guess an argument can be made either way, on a case-by-case basis, depending on each reader's opinions. Sort of like anything else with a book, whether you loved or hated the protagonist, despised the jacket art, or loved the dialogue - it's all a matter of personal opinion. But...

What really lit a fire under me, as Chief Catapult Operator, has nothing to do with anyone so esteemed as Nabokov, Kafka, or Ellison, but rather with the late Robert Jordan, author of the "Wheel of Time" fantasy series. Jordan died in 2007 before he was able to finish his double-digit volume series, but wrote enough of the 12th volume that his executors were able to cobble together a final novel - or spread it out over three, actually - with the help of a ghostwriter. While I think it's a little ridiculous that his "final" novel is actually three books, what really irritated me was this title page:

Yeah, that's right, it sure looks autographed, right? Psych! It's a fake, digitized signature that they put in every copy of the book - I assume to simulate some sort of authentication. My first, mildly curious reaction was, "How is this signed? He's been dead for two years." Now that's immoral.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Autumn Readings

My reading in the last couple of weeks has slowed to a crawl, at least by my normally frantic pace. In those weeks, I've moved across town, which always takes more out of you than when you cross state lines and travel thousands of miles, and I've tried to maintain the Warwick's Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog as much as possible during my days, which is proving to be just as hard as keeping the Catapult up to date. (Luckily, we have multiple contributors, so I don't have to produce quite so much content.) I've also written a few short reviews for KPBS's Culture Lust blog on Thomas Pynchon, Ron Currie, Reif LarsonJonathan Lethem, and Jess Walter (coming soon) - most of which I've mentioned here already, but, of course this is my blog afterall. I've also started a "program" of sorts at the store where I rap at folks over coffee, discussing what's new & awesome in the world of books, interspersed, of course, with my own recommendations. Anyhow, I'll mention here a couple of the books I've read lately, leaving out the ones that aren't to be published until 2010 - a hazard of the job, I'm afraid. You will have to wait for my thoughts on Ray Banks' No More Heroes (March 2010), The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo (March 2010), If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (March 2010), and John Burdett's The Godfather of Kathmandu (January 10, 2010). (Spoiler: they're all pretty awesome.)

The Museum of Innocence - Orhan Pamuk
There's no denying Pamuk's incredible gift for language - regardless of whether it's translated from Turkish or not, I suppose. I really enjoyed the clever, intricate My Name is Red, which I read after he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, although I haven't been able to devote myself to Snow, which feels a bit more impenetrable on the surface. Previous work aside, I was giving his new book my full attention for about 10 days when I became thoroughly bogged down by the narrator's obsessions and self-flagellation - too much for anyone with anything on their plate. In 1975 Istanbul, Kemal is engaged to Sibel - a status of near sacred importance in Turkish society, second only to the sanctity of female virginity and purity. When he meets his distant cousin, Füsun, he falls into a secret, passionate love affair with her, shattering all cultural mores and threatening both of their futures in their homeland. When she breaks the affair off - for obvious reasons, really - Kemal reaches a level of obsession that is almost unwatchable, certainly unreadable, at least for me. I think that if you find yourself not wanting to pick the book up when you have the chance to get a bit of reading in, maybe you should give it a break. So I did. I may go back to it, who knows.

Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer
mmmm, ham sandwichNovelist Foer (Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) has spent the majority of his adult life as a vegetarian - partially as a selective omnivore - but when on the cusp of first-time fatherhood, he began to question where it is that our meat comes from and whether he should raise his child as strictly vegetarian in light of those facts. This book is the result of his pondering research. Let me be clear: I am an omnivore. I don't eat a lot of meat, but I do eat it. And I thoroughly enjoy what I eat. What bothered me about his argument against eating meat was just that - it felt like an argument for argument's sake, without offering any real world solutions for those of us who currently have meat in our diets. Factory farming is a serious problem in this country - one which the majority of us are blissfully unaware of - and there's no doubt that real reform is needed. However, I got the sense that Foer was covertly trying to convince the reader that meat is bad - forcing us to gaze upon the bloody, violent slaughterhouses and the shit-stained chicken coops - rather than accepting the fact that some human beings are omnivores, even carnivores, and offering some guidance. It's easy to report back on the terrible conditions on the factory farms of America (Fast Food Nation?) but another thing entirely to have the journalistic responsibility to offer at least a conclusion to your argument, if not a solution to the very problem you present. Not to rag on him further, since I genuinely like the guy, but it all felt very disjointed, bouncing from tuna farming (just barely) to cattle to chicken to pigs, interspersing transcripted monologues from industry insiders and PETA members - none of it ever felt fully formed or cohesive. There are flashes of genuinely interesting pieces of information (that definitely have gotten me to rethink where my food comes from) but ultimately it disappoints with it's lack of definitive solutions.

The Kingdom of Ohio - Matthew Flaming
Unlike the rest of the books I've mentioned here, Flaming's book is not yet released, but I don't feel like I'd be ruining anything for you by telling you about it, since, to be honest, you more than likely won't read it anyway. This had tremendous potential, at least in my opinion: set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan as the intricate subway tunnels were being built and featuring Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and alternate reality time travelers from a lost kingdom in Ohio, but it never really came together and even the historically based characters felt flat and wooden. (I say, watch David Bowie's incredible performance as Tesla in The Prestige instead.) The ending - when the whole time-travel, alternate-reality-thing should have come together - really fizzled and never delivered the goods.

The Financial Lives of the Poets - Jess Walter
I've written quite a bit on this already - I have a post on the Warwick's blog and an upcoming review on Culture Lust - but it's becoming abundantly clear that this is one of the best books I've read all year. Walter, the author of the Edgar-winning Citizen Vince and the National Book Award-nominated The Zero, is clever enough to have created a wildly comic novel with a moving, very real, very human story at it's center. The moral is: selling weed is never the way out, no matter how good of an idea it may seem like, since you were probably just high when you thought of it anyway.

The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet - Arturo Perez-Reverte
I know that I previously, mildly bashed the author and his website in an earlier posting, but that had nothing to do with how I feel about the man's writing. I truly think that this series gets stronger with each book – Perez-Revete abandons the weighty period dialogue (1620’s Spain) and poetry readings a bit in this 5th "Captain Alatriste" novel, making it much more readable, leaving more room for the idiosyncrasies of Alatriste’s personality to shine and for narrator Inigo Balboa to begin to come into his own. In this episode, Alatriste ends up mired in dangerous, shadowy conspiracies when his favor falls on an actress fancied by King Philip IV. Unlike the others, this doesn’t rely so heavily on the previous books – you can certainly read this as a stand-alone. Great escapist reading for history buffs & mystery readers alike.