Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Man Booker 2011

Once again, I am trying to find meaning in another meaningless literary award. (I might be a complete idiot.) The 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist was announced today - aka: The Man Booker Dozen (as the Booker people like to style it.) The nominees are:

Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days
Jane Rogers - The Testament of Jessie Lamb
D.J. Taylor - Derby Day

The board of judges this year is chaired by Stella Rimington, a B-list mystery novelist (at best) & former director general of MI5. Matthew d'Ancona, Susan Hill, Chris Mullin (the author/politician, not the retired shooting guard from the Golden State Warriors), & book critic Gaby Wood round it out. I suppose even with Rimington directing things, this is a somewhat better panel than last year (which featured a poet, a dancer, & a writer from the Financial Times.) But I have to say, the field itself looks a bit weak, compared to other years. Julian Barnes seems to me to be the early favorite, as a 3-time shortlister & a generally good chap. Then again, Alan Hollinghurst is the one who stole David Mitchell's Prize in 2004, so maybe he's the darkhorse favorite. That's right, I said "stole." Cloud Atlas vs The Line of Beauty. "The line of who?" you ask. "Exactly," I say.

I've heard great things about Sebastian Barry's book, which sits waiting on my desk as we speak. Of course, I'm pulling for Carol Birch, author of Jamrach's Menagerie (see my little blurb from the other day.)  Yes, I read yet another book written by a lady! Shocking! That's FIVE for the year - and it's only July!

Anybody read any of these? Care to chime in? Does anyone even care about the Booker these days?

Monday, July 25, 2011

George R. R. Martin, in da' house

GRRM & the Catapult operator.
George R. R. Martin, the genius - yes, genius, I said - behind A Song of Ice and Fire, aka: A Game of Thrones, etc, was kind enough to stop by Warwick's this morning on his way up to Los Angeles after this weekend's Comic Con. Nice fella, soft hands, fast book signer. Warwick's has a bunch of signed first editions of the new book, in case you're interested: warwicks.com.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What I've Been Reading, In Case You're Interested...

How we select what to read fascinates me. Why do we gravitate towards the books we pick up? I know, we read authors that we've read before or books that friends have recommended to us, but I'm talking about the actual cosmic order that we read them in. Is there a subconscious plan that we're unaware of? Is there a certain style of cover art that reels us in every single time? (I think yes, by the way. There are plenty of great books that I haven't wanted to read, based solely on the cover art.) Is there a special sequence of words in the jacket copy that triggers a subconscious buying reaction? Why do we progress from author to author, sometimes realizing that they are connected in some way only after we've begun reading?

This philosophical question is really just an impetus for me to write about some of the books I've read lately, without feeling guilty for not writing more frequently. So, here's what I've read since the last book I wrote about (Michael Crummey's Galore) presented in sort of a journal format. Is there a pattern within the chaos?

After I read Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson, I couldn't really face reading something "serious" like Moby Dick, Michael Ondaatje, or, I don't know, any of the other countless books on my shelf that I haven't gotten around to yet. (Hello, Lorrie Moore.) So, naturally I picked up Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. A natural progression, to be sure. This is no Twilight, teen-angsty, light-horror beach read. Duncan's edgy prose is surprisingly literary and the well-wrought story has an infinite number of twists & turns that keep you guessing and rooting for the wolf. Jake Marlowe is just a 200-year old man who happens to turn into a wolf with an amped-up libido once a month. He's tired of running from the goons who've hunted down all the other werewolves on earth, but just as he's prepared to go out in a hail of silver bullets, his life is turned on its lupine ear and he desperately wants to stay breathing. In the end, a tale of love, survival, prejudice, and the finer points of living a life well lived.

Then I went to Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy for a little gravity, I suppose. (Follow the link for that mini-review.) Then to Galore. Then I read about half of James Sallis' The Killer Is Dying, but I couldn't tell you what it was about at this point. A serial killer? Just never grabbed me. Then, for whatever reason, I decided to tackle John Sayles' A Moment in the Sun - a 1000-page McSweeney's novel about the Gold Rush and the US's war with Spain in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Sayles is a film director by day - Lone Star, Eight Men Out - so Moment certainly has a cinematic air about it. To be honest, it's a sprawling epic of monstrous proportions that I've had a hard time wrapping my head around. My advance reading copy was printed in two, 500-page sections & I've just about managed to get through Part One. I think I'll go back to it...

As a break from the nearly-impenetrability of that, I moved to George Pelecanos' forthcoming The Cut, which I will be reviewing (hopefully) in the coming weeks as we get closer to the release date in August. Pelecanos was a producer & writer for The Wire, as well as currently wearing the same hats for Treme, in addition to being one hell of a crime novelist. The Cut is flat-out awesomeness.

After that I was on vacation & had my family in town, so, naturally, I read Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill - a series of linked short stories that showcase the horrible shit that people in rural Indiana do to each other. (I'm just funnin', Mom.) As a way of introducing you to his stunning debut, Frank Bill grabs your hand & leads you into the pitch-dark, flooded basement of America where he proceeds to force your head down into the dark, pungent depths. The resultant interlaced stories are gritty, mean, awful, & flat-out brilliant. The characters of Bill’s Indiana are deplorable, miserable wretches – brawlers, drunks, meth-heads, & scumbags - yet this is what lends them such a vitality that makes them all the more real. I couldn't tear my eyes away from them - I kept thinking "Just one more story & I'll stop this madness," but I never did. Ah, let’s admit it: I never wanted to. (On sale August 30. Also, visit Frank Bill's House of Grit, where he has given me an unprecedented couple of shout-outs. A thousand thanks, Frank!)

In an attempt to "lighten the mood" after that, I read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen, which is a novelized version of the events surrounding the 1927 murder trial of Ruth Snyder. (Hansen is also the author of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which was made into a Brad Pitt film.) The Snyder case had the country riveted for several weeks that year and was one of the first instances of an "O.J. Trial" sort of sensationalized court case. Basically, Ruth, unhappy in her marriage, plotted with her lover to murder her husband. And they pulled it off, at least until the police showed up the next morning and saw how obvious it was that Ruth & her squeeze, Judd Gray were responsible for the murder. It's a fascinating story of an obsessive relationship and a tremendously sloppy murder - which leads, ultimately to The Chair for Ruth & Judd (I'm not ruining anything that you can't learn on Wikipedia) - but after reading Hansen's novelized version, I'm not sure why he wrote it this way. He certainly did an extraordinary amount of research for the book, but a lot of it reads like a transcript of events at times, with some journalistic tendencies, combined with some hot & heavy sequences with Ruth & Judd that he made up. Other reviews have gone on about how brilliant Hansen is for being able to create such a lush backstory for Ruth & Judd, but it all read as rather pedestrian to me.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch was a book that I admittedly first picked up for its cover art. That's where that element of my early musings over why we choose what we choose comes true. I'm a sucker for the ocean-scene woodcut cover art, apparently. (See We, the Drowned.) Much to my surprise, the inside of the book was far, far better than the packaging. Set in Victorian England, this is the bizarre tale of Jaffy Brown, born in the darkest, dirtiest slum of Bermondsey, London. After being nearly eaten by a tiger on the street one day...he is taken in as hired help by the tiger's owner, Charles Jamrach, "Naturalist and Importer of Animals, Birds, and Shells." Jamrach imports and sells exotic beasts from all corners of the world, housing them in a vast menagerie at his house in London. With his best friend Tim Linver, Jaffy eventually finds himself on an ocean voyage with Jamrach's "finder," Dan Rymer, in search of a dragon in the Java Sea. What they find sends them all on a much different kind of journey - one laced with insanity, unreliable narration, thirst, starvation, and the dark turns in the inner workings of the souls of men. At turns a playful, whimsical story combined with a little Heart of Darkness, Carol Birch turns in a brilliant, wholly original book that I just loved every word of.

Which brings me to today, where my secret nerd comes out: in anticipation of the release of George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, I went back (yes, back) and read book #4 in his Song of Ice & Fire series, A Feast For Crows. Then, a week later, began Dance, another 900+ pager, which I am currently still tearing through. I first encountered these books when #3 came out - so long ago that I had yet to work in a bookstore at that point. (There was a painful 5 year wait between #3 and #4, followed by another six year wait for the current book.) Nowadays, GRRM is the hottest author around - the HBO adaptation of the first book in this series, A Game of Thrones (written & produced by David Benioff) has been nominated for an Emmy and Dance sold 298,000 copies on its first day. So, where've you been? The best endorsement I can offer for Martin's books is this: I have read all of the first four books twice, clocking in at somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 pages. And I'll read them all again.

So there you have it.