Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #1

1. Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.

And then there was one...  What to say about this book that I have not already said?  How do I justify it's placement at the top of the Catapult Notable List for 2009? Ahhh, the pressure!

There was a difficult decision to be made between Currie and Larsen (#2), but I decided that this story was one that would stick with me in the long run, longer than anything else I read this past calendar year. How could I possibly know that this book is going to be one I remember the plot of in 30 years? That's for me to know and for you to find out, friend.

I realize that, as with any book, this may not be for everyone. There is a message within, but what that message may be is different for each reader, I've come to find. While T.S. Spivet has more of a mass appeal - cute, precocious 12-year old has an adventure and realizes the importance of family - the journey that Junior Thibodeau takes in Everything Matters! to learn what is essentially the same message, is much more starkly ground in reality, even though the plot may be more than highly improbable. In the end, it is not the mistakes we make or the decisions we regret, but the quality of the people with which we surround ourselves that truly judges our lives. I know, a potentially disastrous premise for a novelist to undertake, but Currie totally pulls it off, I'm telling you. Everything we do matters in the end, whether good or bad, it shapes who we are and who we become.

The skinny: Imagine that you were born with the absolute, unquestionable knowledge that the world would be destroyed in a fiery comet collision (equivalent to 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs) somewhere in the vicinity of your 36th birthday. How would you live your life, knowing that every single thing you do or say or think is essentially futile - or at least more finite than we are comfortable thinking about? Would you use your knowledge to try and save the world? Or just your own family? Would you just chuck it all and drink yourself to death? Or would you just live your life as normally as possible? Does anything you do matter? These are the questions posed to Junior Thibodeau, born with an all-seeing, all-knowing voice inside his head. The voice shares its vast knowledge with Junior, whether regarding other people's personal secrets or the impending destruction of the planet, turning him into an lonely, introverted, alcoholic genius who feels that no one really knows him, since he cannot share his knowledge, since no one would believe him. He peppers his life with poor decisions, all under the ruse that nothing he does in life matters at all, since the outcome is so devastatingly pre-determined. But the one constant in life, he finds, is love, and no amount of destiny can impede that emotional connection to other people in your life.

I know that it sounds like a handful - maybe more weight than you're willing to take on while reading a work of fiction - but Currie writes with enough playfulness and wit that the weight of the impending doom never becomes more than the reader can bear. I did have a friend complain that "it was too depressing", but I think she was missing the point - which is, that despite all the hardships imposed by a finite life on earth, sometimes you need to stop and appreciate the small things in life that are ultimately more important. Every little thing we do or say matters towards forming each of us as individual human beings, even if each small thing may not have a visible, tangible impact. You just never know.

And that's why Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr was the best book I read in 2009.




The rest of the Notables:
2. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
3. The Lost City of Z by David Grann
4. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
5. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
6. The City and the City by China Mieville
7. Invisible by Paul Auster
8. Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
9. The Signal by Ron Carlson
10. Stone's Fall by Iain Pears

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #2

2. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

The full Catapult review. I feel sort of bad dropping this book down to number 2 on the Catapult Notable list - we can call it more of a #1b, I guess. Larsen has done the impossible in this modern age - he has broken new ground in the realm of the novel. Big words, I know, but his use of maps, diagrams, and illustrations in this debut novel guides the reader through the labyrinth in a way that has never been done before - at least in such a cohesive, readable narrative structure. This simple story of a little boy who runs away from home, thinking no one loves him, who discovers along the way that the exact opposite is true, would NEVER have appealed to a cynical bastard such as myself, if not for the manner in which the story was imparted.

Twelve-year-old genius cartographer, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives on a ranch in Montana with his family - to his young eyes, his mother is a floundering entomologist and his father is an unloving, gritty rancher. Ever since his younger brother died tragically the summer before, T.S. feels as if his parents do not care whether he's present or not, and he retreats into the mapping of his world. Not maps in the traditional cartographic sense, but rather he creates elaborate diagrams and illustrations of every object, experience, and thought that he deems important enough to put down on paper. An elaborate diagram of a "Freight Train as a Sound Sandwich", the history of 20th century, mapped according to 12-year old boys eating Honey Nut Cheerios, the structure of the Bailey train yards in Nebraska. The scientific drawings he does for a professor friend at Montana State are so accurate and so beautifully rendered, that the professor sends them off to "the attic of our nation", the Smithsonian in Washington, without T.S.'s knowledge. When the museum awards T.S. the distinguished Baird fellowship, without knowing that he is only in junior high, T.S. debates whether to accept his new life or to continue in anonymity on the ranch. In light of his parental ignorance, he decides to slip off under cover of darkness, hop a freight train, and make his way across the country, on his own, to accept his award in D.C.

I loved that the style here made me slow down and enjoy the read for what it was - a novel as a work of art. It has a leisurely pace to it that is a respite from the pace of our modern world - retraining my eye and brain to follow the arrows to the next diagram from T.S.'s notebook had a calming effect on me that allowed me to just be swept along in the flow of the narrative. Wonderful stuff. While compiling this list, I've been engaged in a friendly discussion with authors Olen Steinhauer and Kevin Wignall over at Contemporary Nomad about the benefits and drawbacks to e-books vs bound books. Kevin had a great line about creating more books that are beautiful in their own right that made me think specifically about T.S. Spivet: "if you read a great but cheaply produced book you’ll give it to your friend, but if you read a great and beautifully produced book, you’ll put it on your shelf and recommend it to your friend, even if you know you’ll never read it again." 

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #3

3. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
The only nonfiction title to make it into the top ten for 2009. Read the full Catapult review

In 1925, the internationally known superstar explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, disappeared into the vast Amazon rain forest with two companions, never to be heard from again. His vanishing captivated the world at the time - his exploits in South America had been followed all across the globe via news reel, wire reports, and newspaper headlines - only to have it all fade into obscurity as the century aged. Fawcett was a man obsessed - he spent his entire adult life searching for a rumor, a myth, his own personal "el Dorado" - an ancient city deep within the Amazon, forever eluding the Western explorer, that he had secretively dubbed "Z". Since he vanished over 80 years ago, generations of explorers have gone searching for Fawcett and his city of Z, only to be consumed by the forest themselves. When journalist David Grann stumbled upon Fawcett's story - which by the 21st century had faded far from the public eye - he became obsessed in his own right with uncovering what had happened to the Colonel and his companions.

Grann pens Fawcett's tale with fabulous narrative aplomb - constantly keeping you guessing at what may lie across the next uncharted river or through the next stand of massive, sunlight devouring trees. The pace is perfect throughout - Grann sprinkles just enough of his own comparatively anemic 21st century excursion into the jungle within the history lesson that is Fawcett's life to keep the reader fully engaged and, well, a little bit obsessed with the story. His own obsession pales in comparison with that of the Colonel - he follows him, yes, into the heart of the Amazon, but with the express goal of coming out again to write this story, not to perish in the rain forest without any answers. (To perish would be decidedly Victorian and not very New Yorker.) But the most compelling element, even with the mounting suspense over what actually happened to Fawcett, is in what Grann learns while searching deep in the forests of Brazil. The final chapter reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure novel, complete with bombshell surprises and a cliffhanger ending, while keeping grounded in reality by the journalist's presence. Could this crazed, Indiana Jones-type have been onto something - even without having any real proof? Could there have existed a massive, advanced civilization - complete with highways, bridges, and multiple townships - beneath the impenetrable canopy of the Amazon rain forest? There seems to be a certain irony that the life of this explorer has been as obscured by the annals of history as his obsession - Z - has been obscured by the forest canopy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #4

4. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Prior to reading Inherent Vice, I had never had the courage to even attempt to read a Pynchon novel. This is quite different than his usual fare of 1000-page tomes filled with stream-of-consciousness prose. See the full Catapult review, much excerpted here:

Larry "Doc" Sportello is a pot-smoking hippie private investigator living in L.A.'s Gordita Beach circa 1970. When his "ex-old lady" Shasta shows up at his door asking for help finding her kidnapped boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc embarks on a bizarre, complex journey involving counterfeiting, drug-running, tax-dodging dentists (aka: "The Golden Fang"), blood-thirsty hitmen/loan sharks, swastika-tattooed Ethel Merman fans, revenge-filled, frozen-banana loving cops, zombie surfer bands, tripped out surf hippies, and undercover, reportedly-dead saxophone players. Populating this world with perfectly ridiculous names like Downstairs Eddie, Adrian Prussia, Bigfoot Bjornson, Puck Beaverton, Ensenada Slim, and Flaco the Bad (not to mention "Denis", misprounounced by everyone like "penis"), Pynchon has taken the crime novel, blown enough weed smoke in its mouth to kill a college sophomore, and created something wholly different, bizarre, and completely brilliant. The biggest injustice you could do to this novel would be to take it at all seriously. Or to try to follow along, word-for-word, with Doc's adventures. You're much better off just sparking up that joint (metaphorically?) and going along for the ride, because even Pynchon doesn't know where Doc is heading next, so the hell with it. Even though the plot is as gordian as knots get, it ends up not mattering one whit - this is just a day-in-the-life sort of thing and it's better to not question it. Let Pynchon guide you along - his is a remarkable talent for dialogue, character, hell, even Doc's space-out episodes are fascinating. (I found myself spacing out along with him, until another character snapped him back.) All I can tell you is that I loved every word I read - and I plan to read it all again.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #5

5. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
Walter, author of the gritty Edgar winner, Citizen Vince and the National Book Award Nominee and 2006 Catapult Notable Book, The Zero, has returned with a heartbreaking, hilarious & very timely story about how quickly our lives can change & how we each handle life’s persistent curveballs just a little bit differently.

The humor in this cautionary tale of financial woe is very dark, very dry, and the situation is profoundly bleak for sleepless, unemployed Matt, who is in danger of losing his house, his wife, all his money, and every ounce of his sanity. Before the stock market crash of 2008, Matt quit his job as a financial news columnist to start an ill-fated website of poetry-laced financial tips and articles called poetfolio.com.

Buffetted by fuel cost soaring
and with labor costs surging
Delta and Northwest are exploring
the possibility of merging
Two years later, after the website predictably tanked in miserable fashion, Matt returned to the journalism job he left, only to be laid off when the market ultimately bottomed out. Now he can't find work, the bank is threatening foreclosure (he’s told that he has “fiscal Ebola” by his financial planner), his wife has managed to shop her way into an insurmountable credit card debt (and is more than likely having an affair), his children pick fights in their expensive private school, and his father, plagued by dementia, can offer no support, as he spends his days clutching his television remote and thinking in a perpetual loop. (His favorite refrain is, "Know what I miss?" - a question with only six possible answers, among them "chipped beef", "Angie Dickinson" and "The Rockford Files".) One fateful evening, while purchasing $9 milk at a 7-Eleven, Matt decides that selling pot to his middle-aged contemporaries is the way to make the money he needs to save it all. How do you think that ends? Emotionally resonant and more culturally relevant than anything I can remember reading, Walter has kicked his game up into a new level that I never thought he was capable of.

Friday, December 25, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #6

6. The City & the City by China Mieville

Nothing says "Christmas" like a good sci-fi novel!

I don't read as much science fiction as I once did, but this crazy cool novel caught my eye for it's genre-bending antics and writing that the LA Times likened to a "Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler love child...raised by Franz Kafka". In a style very similar to PKD or Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, Mieville expertly blurs genre lines in this science fiction crime novel of a bizarrely divided city. The city is one physical space, but partitioned by an otherworldly division so that two cities share the same physical space at the same time. The cities merge & blend, but the residents always stay separate, avoiding eye contact, "unseeing" each other, out of a collective fear of the spooky Breach, the overseers of this crazy sociological experiment. But what happens when a woman is murdered in one city, but her body is discovered in the other? There is not much negotiating with Breach, so the politics for Inspector Tyador Borlu are complicated, to say the least.

Borlu manages to follow the trail back to wealthy Ul Qoma, the mirror city to his poverty-stricken Beszel, and discovers that the murder victim believed that a third city may exist, between the cracks and fissures of the other two. Such a belief will get one noticed by Breach, however - not a prospect anyone wishes to entertain - not to mention that it could get you murdered. A very clever, intelligent, intricate novel that pushes past any set boundaries we have for crime fiction, bringing the reader into that alternate, shared reality that hovers on our peripheral visions. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #7

7. Invisible by Paul Auster

Mr. Paul Auster is an author whose work I either love or hate - usually in that order, according to his publishing schedule. The appearance of his latest in my top ten this year should give an indication of where he is on that schedule.

Invisible is a clever, well-wrought novel that tricks the reader at every turn with false information and embellishments by multiple narrators. In reality, of course, people often do not tell the truth - or at least they sometimes alter that truth to better serve themselves - so why is this not usually the case in fiction? Why should we implicitly believe every word that our narrator imparts to us? Constructed in interlocking narratives of incestual lust, a random act of violence, and a lifelong pursuit of justice, the lines between memory and reality are sufficiently blurred by Auster, leaving the reader to question each previous perspective as they are laid at our feet.

I love those books that test the boundaries of fiction like this - David Mitchell, Borges, Calvino - and Auster (with the exception of Brooklyn Follies) always tries to push that, but often ends up bound in the knots of his own overreaching machinations. Not so here - this left me really wondering about the place of identity, truth, and narration in both fiction and reality. If you read just one Auster novel in your life, this just might be the one - it's certainly the most resonant for me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #8

8. Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Mr. Adiga vaulted onto the literary scene when his debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Between the Assassinations is a followup collection of linked short stories that showcases Adiga's considerable skills, proving that Tiger was no fluke - we may have only just glimpsed the glimmering edge of his potential talent. These stories, set in the small Indian town of Kittur on the Arabian Sea, feature the seemingly boundless population of fully formed characters residing at the author's fingertips. An illegal bookseller sells photocopied versions of banned titles and pays a steep price. A young man of privilege sets off an explosive in his Jesuit-run school, citing that "no man should be judged merely by the accident of his birth." A small town boy climbs the ranks at the bus depot, only to learn how finite social climbing in Kittur really is. A snake-oil salesman finally allows his conscience to get the better of him. An overworked delivery man works harder than the elephants doing the same job and is kept under foot by his fanciful dream of moving upward in life. The characters float in and around each other's stories, only getting as close to one another as social caste will allow. Kittur itself is the true character, providing a backdrop for the broad-sweeping narrative on the intricate social caste system that is very much alive in modern India.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #9

9. The Signal by Ron Carlson
"He walked back and opened the tailgate and sat, finally lifting his eyes to look east across the tiers of Wyoming spread beneath him in the vast echelons of brown and gray. It was dark here against the forest, but light gathered across the planet, and he could see the golden horizon at a hundred and fifty miles."

I make no secret about my love for the writings of Mr. Ron Carlson - I've written about this book (which I've read twice) and his previous, Five Skies (a 2007 Catapult Notable Book), more times than I can count. I was lucky enough to meet him in June of this year - you can see the six-part video of his talk at Warwick's on our Youtube page - and humbled by his, well, humility. You can read my full length review of The Signal right here, because I'm going to phone it in a bit and just excerpt that review down here:

The premise is rather simple - Mack and Vonnie have seemingly reached the end of their ten-year marriage. Mack has made some terrible decisions in that decade - abandoning his life and livelihood on his family ranch for supposedly greener pastures laden with drink, drugs, and cash - essentially forcing Vonnie's hand, despite her love for Mack. As a final farewell of sorts, Vonnie agrees to accompany Mack on their annual September hike into Cold Creek in the mountains of Wyoming, one last time. She sees this as a way of closing off their relationship and mending broken hearts, while Mack sees an opportunity to prove to Vonnie (and himself) that he is still the man he once was, despite his mistakes. Of course, he has one last mistake to make before their time in the mountains is over - one set in motion by the actions in his life without Vonnie that may destroy all that he cares about in the end.

The visuals are so clear, vivid, and eloquent - the mud on the trail, the smell of waning campfire, the sun glinting off the ancient lakes, the whisper of the breeze through the pines - that it reads like a John Muir nature narrative. One of Carlson's reoccurring themes is of the encroachment of the "civilized" world on the old, green spaces of the land - this encroachment is never more evident than in the embodiment of Mack. He cannot survive in the cities and towns of the world, making error after error, ruining his own life and those of whom he cares for most. But once he is set out into the mountains and forests, he has no match and truly comes alive. This hiking trip is more an opportunity for Mack to live again after having death hover above him for the better part of the previous year. Watching his transformation from greedy, stupid fool in town to peerless naturalist and woodsman in the mountains is truly the great strength of this novel. If anything, just read this to leave your city life behind for a few days.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Catapult Notable List - #10

10. Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
While Malcolm Gladwell has said that he "cannot remember enjoying a book as much as Stone's Fall" and told Oprah.com that "[Pears] might be the best mystery/thriller writer alive", I have placed this just inside my top ten for '09. It's good, but c'mon, Malcolm.


I will admit, I struggled through Pears' labyrinthine masterpiece, An Instance of the Fingerpost, when I read it back in the day. It weighs in at over 700 pages, tells the story of a murder from 4 differing perspectives, and while it took me forever to get through, I realized afterward that I love books with that type of narrative structure - which ultimately lead me to authors like David Mitchell, Orhan Pamuk. That said, Pears has returned with the similarly structured Stone's Fall, which encompasses the life of a wealthy turn-of-the-century industrialist named John Stone. When Stone dies under mysterious circumstances in 1909, (did he fall out the window, jump out the window, or was he pushed out the window?) a young reporter begins to dig into Stone's life, not entirely sure what he is unearthing or who is pulling his strings. When the enigmatic Henry Cort directs him to pre-WWI spygames in Paris 1890 and Venetian industrial espionage in 1867, this incredible onion of a novel begins to gradually unfold.

Pears expertly keeps the storyline unfolding backwards in time, until all preconceived notions we may have about the characters (established chapter to chapter) are sufficiently pressed into submission and completely reworked. In each section, the reader emerges with a completely new perception of what Stone was really like, as well as what the motives and ambitions of the people he surrounded himself with really were.  Well worth the time investment & a fascinating, meticulously researched, multi-layered masterpiece. Leaving you asking, who was John Stone, really?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Catapult Notable List 2009

Making lists and ranking the value of things holds just as much interest for the list-maker as it does for the list-reader, so as a way of (hopefully) keeping all of us entertained, the 4th annual "Seth's Notable List" has been re-christened in 2009 as the Catapult Notable List and been given a format overhaul. The top ten books I read in 2009 have received rankings (as voted on by the of variety of personalities living inside my brain) and they will be posted here each day over the next ten days as if from a book recommendation vending machine.

Granted, this is the list of the best that I read this year - there may be books out there that I never got around to that may be better - who knows. I'd still like to read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, Ha Jin's A Good Fall, and Colum McCann's National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin - there's always next year. I did read a few books this year - Perez-Reverte's The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, JLB's Rain Gods - that were quite good, but perhaps were enjoyed for my own personal, sentimental reasons and not for being fantastic literary works. There were others that I really enjoyed the majority of - Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood, Lethem's Chronic City (surprisingly named one of the Ten Best books of the year by the New York Times) - but can't wholeheartedly recommend as the cream of the crop, certainly not in light of those authors' literary canons. I've also managed to pinpoint six other books that fell just shy of the Notable List and thus deserve some sort of honorable mention. So, before the Top Ten dispensory begins in earnest tomorrow, here are the best of the rest:

16. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Tower has been the hipster's choice as the hot author this year, and with good reason. His short stories of the soft white underbelly of American life have a grim, edgy humor to them that I particularly enjoyed. And the title story, written in a hilarious & decidedly contemporary style, is about marauding vikings battling the winter doldrums. "Djarf stood in the doorway wearing a mail jacket and shield and breathing like he'd jogged the whole way over. He chucked a handful of hail at my feet. 'Today's the day,' he said with a wild grin. 'We got to get it on.'"

15. The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
As you may know, I've long been a fan of Olen's series of brilliant Edgar-nominated detective novels set in the Eastern bloc (The Bridge of Sighs, The Confession). The Tourist is his first foray outside that world - and he ends up with a very successful, complex contemporary spy novel that deals with the real-world issues of modern spygames. 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? The full Catapult review.

14. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Ruiz Zafon, author of the indie bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, returns us to Barcelona's "Cemetery of Forgotten Books". A sprawling, labyrinthine novel that evokes the rich, vivid atmosphere of pre-Civil War Barcelona’s culture of literacy, yet cleverly provokes the reader with a narrator of dubious reliability & sanity - one of my favorite plot devices. The clack of the typewriter, the smell of the dusty old bookshop, the very idea of pulp short stories being printed in the newspaper - all are evocative of a lost era of literature and a culture surrounding the printed page. The vastness of the narrative layering is astounding, showcasing Ruiz Zafon’s remarkable storytelling abilities & inherent sense of time & place. By no means a perfect novel - he could have easily edited out several sections for purposes of narrative flow - but one worth escaping into, for sure. The full Catapult review.

13. A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy - a modern noir classic - has been turned into a full-blown series by Mr. Kerr. Now in 1950’s Argentina, Bernie Gunther has been given a new life by the Perons, reluctantly joining the hidden ranks of exiled Nazis. When a disturbing case shows links to one he remembers from his more legit, pre-war days, the ever vengeful Bernie realizes that one of the Nazis in his midst is responsible for many of the ill turns his life has taken. The writing is extremely crisp, the dialogue sharp, and Gunther has more life in him than, well, most people I know. I never thought he could top the 4th book in the series, The One From the Other - and after reading The Quiet Flame, I thought the same thing. Wait until you read the forthcoming 6th book, If the Dead Rise Not - coming in March 2010. Goddamn! Somebody PLEASE give this guy an Edgar Award!

12. Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Check the the full Catapult review. The rundown: based on the real-life packrat brothers, Homer & Langley Collyer, who lived in the squalor of their Manhattan townhouse in the first half of the 20th century. Historical magician Doctorow brings them roaring back to life, in all their glorious, weird sadness. Homer is blind and relies solely on his insane brother, Langley, who is hellbent on collecting just about everything he can think of a use for. His collection began with newspapers - and it is this portion of home decor that ultimately traps the brothers in their darkening world.

11. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
This would have easily made the top ten on sheer story alone but I was left wanting a little more out of Eggers, whose writing just seemed too pedestrian. I don't know, maybe this was really his point, to just state the facts as he received them, but it seemed stilted and wooden most of the time. Regardless, this is an incredible story that every American needs to read. The horrible circumstances that befell the Zeitoun family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are so unacceptable and shocking that you'll find it hard to believe that this happened in an American city in 2005. (My full review on the Warwick's blog.) In his NYT review, Timothy Egan wrote, "50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ned

I first met Ned Blitvich in the tiny town of Ston, Croatia in October 2008. (Seen here, Ned atop the 14th century wall fortifications in Ston.) Ned, who spent half his year in Croatia and half at home with his wife in Temecula, CA, passed away last week, rather unexpectedly. He was the father of one of our stateside friends & we were lucky enough to spend a day with him in his hometown in Croatia last fall. He was incredibly friendly, generous to a fault, quick with an Old World wit, and one of the kindest souls I've ever had the honor of coming across. We spent an afternoon hiking the walls of Ston, drinking his powerful homebrewed wine, and gorging ourselves on his homegrown figs, which remain the best I've ever tasted. When we were soaked in wine & cutting things close in catching our bus back to Dubrovnik that afternoon, Ned drove us at breakneck speed down his winding, seaside road to the "highway" where the bus would stop. "Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus! You gonna jump out, okay?!", he said as he skidded to a stop in the roadside gravel. I jumped out, flagged the bus, & made it in time, all due to Ned's superior pickup truck-driving skills. Just one of those days in life that you will never forget, you know?

To say that he will simply be missed would be a grave understatement.

*To see more pictures of Ned and Ston, Croatia, check out my Picasa site. Thanks.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Maybe I'm not supposed to talk about this, maybe it's okay that I do - there were no firm instructions given for this sort of thing. Last month, after crying and whining to and ultimately threatening my Random House sales rep, I was kindly sent a manuscript copy of David Mitchell's forthcoming novel, due to be published in the States on June 29, 2010. I don't want to post a full-on review, filled with information that will ruin things for anyone interested, but I did finish reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet last night. Holy shit, what a book.

All I will say at this point is this:  it does not have the complex, head-exploding machinations of some of Mitchell's past work (Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas esp.) but it does prove that Mitchell has been no fluke - his burgeoning talent has hit full stride at this point and Autumns showcases his immense ability to write in any genre he chooses and blow your socks off in the process. It is set in 1799 on the manmade, Dutch trading post island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk for the Dutch East India Company assigned to Dejima who just wants to do an honest job, make a little money, and work his way back home to his future bride. If only life in a David Mitchell novel were that simple.

The Dutch survive as Japan's sole trading partner through an uneasy alliance based on the certainty of supplies from the outside world - what happens when something goes wrong on the supply chain? Jacob is faced with internal corruption and vicious political manuevering, the delicate balancing act of the Japanese partnership, a daunting language barrier, the mysterious banishment of the woman he loves, the hushed-up financial collapse of his employer, and an imminent attack by foreign invaders, all of which test the limits of his faith - a faith strictly forbidden in Japan on the cusp of the 19th century. There are multiple narrators throughout, as is Mitchell's wont, but it is structurally done in such a subtle way that you hardly notice - you are just swept along in the flow, wondering, as a foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse.

My god, if this book isn't the one that earns him that elusive Booker prize...



2/6/10 update: Random House now has a site up for the new book: thousandautumns.com - complete with an excerpt and an advance copy request form, so check it.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Insert hilarious play on a Cormac McCarthy book title here

"For our next item up for auction we offer this lovely, broken Olivetti typewriter from Knoxville, Tennessee..."

Cormac McCarthy's 50-year old typewriter broke recently, so he is auctioning it off for charity at Christie's auction house on Friday. This clunky, rusted behemoth was the birthplace for every, single thing he has written since 1958. House estimates place the value at $15,000 to $20,000, so I think that if all the readers of the Book Catapult chip in, you can get it for me for Christmas. Granted, since there are so few of you, you may have to chip in several thousand dollars... but think how happy you'd make me!

For more, Google "cormac typewriter", visit Christie's, or read the Huffington Post, LA TimesNew York Times or any of the countless other articles on the subject, which is, again, a broken typewriter.

(12/8/09) Quick update:  Cormac's typewriter sold for $254,500.