Saturday, October 23, 2010

King Tutterson

I hate - really hate - to have to return to JPatt for a cheap laugh, but... I am what I am.  This week, Hachette released the paperback edition of Patterson's The Murder of King Tut - a work of "nonfiction" written with Martin Dugard.  The Library of Congress listing on the inside labels it as a "nonfiction thriller."  Hmmm.  I wonder what that means...

Chapter 15
Amarna
1345 BC
The fierce and bellicose General Horemheb could not believe what he was hearing from this silly, useless pharaoh.
"We will not be waging war on our neighbors," Akhenaten decreed, slouching in his throne.
The general should not have been cowed by the words of the pharaoh, but the intensity with which Akhenaten stared into his eyes was unsettling.

The Murder of King Tut has 100 chapters, spread liberally over 332 pages (including a Prologue & Epilogue, of course) and has handy excerpts at the end from JPatt's upcoming novel Cross Fire (November 2010) and his next YA title, Witch & Wizard: The Gift (December 2010).  I presume these are included because either he or Hachette is being honest about who's reading the Tut book - and it ain't egyptologists from Harvard.  

In the Author's Note, JPatt writes, "I don't think I've ever done more research for a book."  Which is good, since it's supposed to be nonfiction & therefore, true.  Even then, it sounds like he sent poor Martin Dugard to Egypt for the "historical legwork" while he "lost (himself) in books and online research" from the comfort of his giant house in Florida.  Here's a sampling of what he came up with:
What must she be thinking, Tut wondered, lying flat on his back, his eyes adjusting to the near darkness. She has come to have sex with the pharaoh. Of course she is a virgin, so the mere act of making love is mysterious and frightening.
But to lie down with the ruler of all Egypt? With me?
Dictionary.com defines "historical novel" as "a narrative in novel form, characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages."  This seems an awful lot like what Patterson has done with his little King Tut book, except he has insisted upon calling it "nonfiction" to lend a greater deal of credibility to it.  

Alright, if you're being a jerk defending JPatt, you might ask, "Well, isn't this just creative nonfiction?"  True, "creative nonfiction" has gained serious traction as a genre in recent years - and I probably wouldn't have read any nonfiction in the last decade if people didn't start writing like that - but JPatt differs from the Eric Larsons, John McPhees, or Susan Caseys out there in his stretching of truths - not to mention his childlike writing abilities.  What he has done with Tut is more in the vein of "speculative fiction" rather than anything related to the realm of actual, factual truth.  
"It's nothing new for histories to be speculative, but there's a difference between guessing and basing a theory on cold hard facts. We chose the facts." (from the Author's Note)
Murdered?
What really bugs me is that while real anthropologists know the general sketch of Tut's life & reign, but they certainly don't know what his (or anyone else's) conversations were like 3,155 years ago.  I know Patterson's financial arms are long, but unless he has commissioned a time machine, this book and its abundant dialogue reads ridiculous.  How can you claim to use factual evidence to write a 300 pages of dialogue?  This is actually called historical fiction, Jim.

I haven't even mentioned the underlying thread to this piece of shit, either - that someone murdered Tut.  The "cold hard facts," such as they are.  In 1964, x-rays of Tut showed what looked to be a skull fracture.  In 2005, it would seem that this theory was debunked when a CT scan of Tut's mummy revealed a broken leg but no evidence of a blow to the head or any other signs of violent trauma.  It would seem that the break in the leg might have lead to sepsis or some other type of infection that, if left untreated, could have killed the pharaoh.  Egyptian Vice Minister of Culture and renowned anthropologist, Zahi Hawass, stated  "We don't know how the king died, but we are now sure that it was not murder."  But hey, what do egyptologists know about this stuff anyway, right?  Let's get a bestselling novelist on the case!

Chapter 67 is one of a couple of chapters written in the first person & is set in Patterson's home in Palm Beach, Florida:
Staring at (the list of pharaoh names), I began to think that I wasn't studying a random act of murder but a cold-blooded conspiracy. There was that gut instinct of mine again - the reason, I think, that Time magazine had once called me "The Man Who Can't Miss."
Shit, let's just leave it at that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Robert Tanenbaum is Unhappy

Big-time New York Yankees fan & bestselling author, Robert Tanenbaum, visited a certain bookstore in San Diego last week, where he laid into Derek Jeter for "cheating."  No microphone was necessary for Bob, who mesmerized (ie: screamed at) the packed house of 5 or 6 fiction fans who will probably never leave their homes again (especially the poor dude in the front row.)  Make sure you turn up the volume.  (Video editing courtesy of Reggie Style.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Citrus County by John Brandon

I tried explaining this book to my better half just after I finished reading it and it didn't go so well.  I may have to revamp my handselling technique to deliver a more socially acceptable recap of this little gem.
"So, well, this kid, Toby, kidnaps the sister of his girlfriend and keeps her locked in an abandoned bunker in the woods.  Everything works out in the end, but..." 
"Woah woah. Works out?  How could that possibly work out?  I'm going to have to call bullshit on this one."
Maybe I was getting ahead of myself by letting on that "everything works out."  I was just trying to soften the blow.  It's a fucked up little story, but it was really good, I swear.  I'm gonna start over now.

John Brandon has written a powerful, funny, bizarre little novel of adolescent longing, loss, and general, everyday misery that creaks along down the dark halls of narration with a resounding reality and clarity of prose unlike pretty much anything else I have read recently.  Actually, I'm not alone in thinking this - Daniel "Lemony Snickett" Handler wrote in his NYT review from July that Citrus County is a "great story in great prose, a story that keeps you turning pages even as you want to slow to savor them, full of characters who are real because they are so unlikely."  True, that.

Toby is a 14-year old punk, to be honest.  He subsists on chafing against the grain of everything he can find, but he does so in such a quiet, understated way, that he seems to float by you without your ever noticing.  He prank calls strangers, asking them whether they're satisfied with their lives.  He takes up pole vaulting, just because his middle school track coach doesn't want to coach pole vault.  He does his best to stay out of the way of his moderately insane, possibly suicidal uncle, Neal who mixes himself fresh batches of potential life-ending hemlock every weekend.  When Toby meets Shelby, the smartest girl in his class, his life changes in ways even the most seasoned "coming-of-age" fiction fan could never see coming.

The Big Thing that Toby does on page 37 is an inexcusable act that, on the surface of things, is irredeemable, deplorable, and completely impossible to understand.  But here's the thing: even Toby can't begin to understand the horrible thing he has done, but he has to deal with it, so he does.  He just wants to see where things take him.  And so do we.

One evening, while Shelby and her father are relaxing on their front porch, Toby breaks in to their house and kidnaps Shelby's younger sister.  He doesn't hurt the girl, but he keeps her locked in an underground bunker, pretty much for the rest of the book. The entire novel is essentially the aftermath of Toby's actions - how he shapes his life around those actions, how Shelby's life changes as a result, who she becomes in their wake.  It is a sparse, compelling novel of observation - with an almost voyeuristic feel to it, yet without the resultant creepiness.  This is an interesting dichotomy - to peer through the window in the homes of these characters and to feel better about oneself as a result.  Hell, at least I'm not the one doing all the horrible shit - I'm just watching.

Our narrators wander on the extremities of what is socially acceptable - Toby in his blunted rage; the disaffected geography teacher, Mr. Hibma with his thinly veiled homicidal tendencies (in fact, I could read an entire novel of the hilarious inner thoughts of Mr. Hibma); Sherry, who seems to weirdly, quickly accept the fact that her sister has been kidnapped and that her own life has a new path.  Yet even with that social blurriness, Brandon manages to create a cast of sympathetic characters who wallow in their malformed lives, leaving us feeling better about our own, yet comfortable with theirs.  And even in light of their weirdness, there is always a place for redemption and renewal - even if it comes from the most unlikely of sources - not to mention a crazed, edgy hilarity that I find particularly appealing.
Mr. Hibma went into the lounge. He chugged someone's soda. Because it made Mrs. Connor angry, he used the ladies' restroom. He pissed on the seat and buried the bottle of hand soap at the bottom of the trash. He looked into the mirror and said aloud, "I am twenty-nine years old. I am a middle school teacher. I live in Northwest Central Florida. I inherited money from and old Hungarian man I picked up groceries for. I had a couple lengthy talks with him and sometimes walked his dog." Mr. Hibma cleared his throat. He looked at himself resolutely. "Sir, you spent one third of your inheritance on whores."
There is something so compactly compelling about this novel that propels you through this town of misfits who cling to your clothing as you pass on to the next book on your shelf.  These people have all stuck with me since I finished - always a mark of a special piece of fiction, for me.  I was left with the feeling that I had wandered into their lives at the worst possible moment - when all of them are at their most vulnerable, their weakest, the craziest points in their lives.  It almost felt as if in the span of a book, those maddened moments passed and their lives resumed.

As odd of a tale as this is, it doesn't seem so far off from something that could feasibly happen in our own dark-hearted America.  And I'm okay with that.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

And then there's Vargas Llosa

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2010 is awarded to the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat". (from nobelprize.org)

Like I said yesterday, no one really knows who's going to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  We can all speculate till our e-readers run out of juice, but the committee is always going to throw a changeup that buckles your knees at the last second.  "Year of the Poet." "Kenyans are favored!"  "Cormac!"  "Roth, finally."  All a bunch-a-hooey and sleight of hand, I say.  Although, Vargas Llosa seems so glaringly obvious in hindsight.

God, I'm so stupid!  Why didn't I pick him in the office pool!  25/1 odds! 

I mean, congratulations are in order for the esteemed Peruvian novelist.  Cheers!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nobel Bets

The 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced at 4:00 in the morning pacific time on Thursday, October 7th.  (Don't pretend like you won't be awake to watch the webcast!)  The British betting house, Ladbrokes, tends to be the spot where everyone looks to find the current betting odds on who the next laureate will be.  Betting on such a thing as a literary prize is nearly as futile as betting on... well, something ridiculously impossible to predict.  In the last few years, especially, the Nobel has surprised everyone with their left field picks: Herta Muller, 2010; J.M.G le Clezio, 2009; Elifred Jelinek, 2004.  Still, it's kinda fun to guess.  This year, the early favorite was a Swedish poet named Tomas Transtromer - since the word on the street is that 2010 is "the year of the poet."  Earlier this week, focus shifted to Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o - a shift that freaked out the Ladbrokes blokes since the early odds had Thiong'o at 75/1, creating a potentially disastrous scenario for the oddsmakers.  (If you got your bet in early, with the 75/1 odds, the payout could be huge.)  As of this morning, however, the current favorite is Mr. Cormac McCarthy.  Huh?

The odds for the top favorites, according to Ladbrokes betting house in England (as of Wednesday morning):

Cormac McCarthy: 5/2
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: 7/2
Haruki Murakami: 6/1
Peter Nadas: 9/1
Ko Un: 12/1
Gerald Murnane: 12/1
Tomas Transtromer: 13/1
Adonis: 13/1
Les Murray: 15/1
Juan Gelman: 15/1
Alice Munro: 16/1
Joyce Carol Oates: 18/1
Thomas Pynchon: 22/1
E.L Doctorow: 22/1
Adam Zagajewski: 25/1
Claudio Magris: 25/1
Amos Oz: 25/1
Mario Vargas Llosa: 25/1
Ulrich Holbein: 25/1
John Ashbery: 25/1
Philip Roth: 33/1

Every year, Philip Roth's name is bandied about because it's been - gasp - 16 years since an American was awarded the prize (Toni Morrison, 1994).  The Ladbrokes list is created generally by buzz in the book world alone, which would explain the great odds on Cormac and Thiong'o as well as the appearance on the list of the likes of Thomas Pynchon and E.L. Doctorow.  (Not to mention the 100/1 odds on Bob Dylan.)  The whole thing is pretty absurd.  I love Haruki Murakami, but c'mon, 6/1?

That said, which horse are you backin'?  My money's on Tomas the Transformer.  Year of the Poet, baby.