Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik

Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise

One recent beautiful day, I was curled up with a book outside, enjoying the change in the light and air of fall, with a fat orange cat on my lap. The baby was asleep, work was done, and it was finally a chance to relax. It was bliss.  All was quiet.  Quiet, until an extremely loud dirt bike, without a muffler, began doing circuits of the road below my house. I went from peaceful and content to plotting murder in mere seconds…just the whine of the engine made my teeth ache. The fact I was reading this book made the noise all the more relevant.

George Prochnik takes a subject that is universally annoying and studies it in ways that are both fascinating and frightening. He examines the sounds, both in volume and type, that trigger aggression (see dirt bike above). In one chapter he discusses scientists who study the cries of infants that makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse (and what can be done for prevention). He takes the research further and shows how some sounds are actually used in torture (see dirt bike above). For example, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are sometimes forced to listen to the cries of screaming infants overlaid with a track of repeating Meow Mix commercials.

He also investigates where sound is used for manipulation in a retail setting. He meets with the sound designers behind Abercrombie & Fitch, who intentionally design the retail space to flood the ears with rapid, pulsating music to mimic a rave or nightclub. The lights are intentionally dim, so that a customer feels more like they are at a party than a store, and they’ll likely pay less attention to the price tag and more attention to the atmosphere. Geared towards college age students that have left home for the first time, A & F manipulates their senses for profit while at the same time creating and branding their identity of ‘cool’. Prochnik also examines the science behind music played at grocery stores, restaurants, and bars. If it’s too fast, customers will eat faster and leave before they run up a tab. If it’s the right pace and overly loud, researchers have found they will actually drink more alcohol, since gesturing for another drink is easier than conversation.

Some anecdotal findings throughout are fascinating, as he travels from a monastery where silence is required, and out into the streets, where boom boxes, car stereos, train whistles, and sirens bombard the area with noise. In no way is he a cranky old Mr. Wilson, yelling at the kids to shut up. Rather, he’s fascinated by the science of it all. For example, scientists in Japan devised a “Mosquito Teen Deterrent” that is a sonic repellent-it makes a noise only audible to those under 20 years of age. This was used in areas where the police and storekeepers wanted to prevent teenage loitering, but its use is now up for debate in terms of ear damage. The invention was shown in one of the most memorable episodes of 30Rock.  Clever teenagers managed to turn the tables on adults by using the same technology to create a cell phone ringer that could be used in class-the teacher couldn’t hear it ring!

Is sound really a matter of personal preference? Can laws really be enforced to control sound output from cars or homes? Prochnik investigates the influence of loud noise on health, and one especially interesting finding was that excessively loud noise, such as at a rave, actually makes the drug Ecstasy more toxic to users.

Beyond the noise itself, he also researches and explains new developments in sound proofing and the new industry that has been built up around the desire for peace and quiet. New materials and inventive uses of old technology can create homes that actually resist external noise.  This book covers a great deal of material, and at times it’s too much to absorb at once. But the chapters can stand alone and can be returned to without losing the conceptual thread.   In all, it's a fascinating book made especially interesting by the quick writing and large amount of cited evidence and details.

Special thanks to Judy Jacoby of Doubleday for the Review Copy.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

carved of wood or ivory, most were the size of a walnut
A Hidden Inheritance

Antiques are often more valuable when their provenance can be determined, and the more details regarding ownership and travel, the better. Thus, the extensive history of the tiny netsuke described in this memoir makes them essentially priceless. Purchased in Paris in the 1870’s, the travels of these tiny figurines reveal a much bigger and more important story than one could imagine. In fact, the general history of WWII and the days leading to it, across the European continent, are a part of their history.

This ‘art memoir’ combines a narrative of both the personalities of the owners and world history into the netsuke origins (see photo).  Edmund de Waal, who began to research their origins in 1991, is an esteemed porcelain artist on his own, and his perspective on the netsuke is more insightful due to his own artistic vision and relation to the family. It’s both personal and historical.

The collection was held by his uncle in Tokyo, and had been passed down from their original purchaser, Charles Ephrussi, in the 1870s. Charles Ephrussi was the ultimate collector. Wealthy beyond imagination, he left Paris for Italy and made extravagant purchases for his Paris apartment. He hung out with Proust, Renoir, and Degas, and was part of the high society in Paris that revered all things related to art and literature. De Waal uses impeccable research to discuss the catalogues of possessions that Ephrussi owned and the family dynamics in that opulent age. However, one detail made all the difference. Ephrussi was Jewish. Thus, while he died before the worst came, his family suffered greatly and the netsuke made their own significant journey.

The book examines what happened in Vienna to the Ephrussi family in 1938, when Hitler’s power was at its height and when both soldiers and common people decided to take away the wealth of the Jews when they had the opportunity. First, brown shirts invaded the homes of the Ephrussi family and simply smashed and destroyed what they wished. Then they returned and took the paintings and books, cataloguing them with photographs so that Hitler could personally decide what to do with them. Their money was stolen. Some family members managed to escape to other countries, but it meant leaving everything behind.

In all the violence, a lowly maid named Anna (a Gentile) managed to quietly hide the netsuke in her mattress, and held them, not for certain profit but for the opportunity she was sure would come, when she could return them to the family. Her loyalty inspires the author, yet the irony of the netsuke’s survival is not lost: “why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can’t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.” Thus, 264 of the netsuke were restored to descendents of the Ephrussi family.

Reading more like a thriller than a memoir, the details are rapid and shocking. Seeing how ordinary people behaved in horrific circumstances was revealing, in both their noble and barbaric acts. De Waal does not write simply in facts, but reveals subtler clues to the people involved. Rather than simply noting the wealth of Charles, he uncovers a more personal trait; Charles “does not know when to shade eagerness and become invisible.” Thus he makes a story of objects also an exploration of character.

This is truly a beautiful book. I’ve had to read a few art histories that seemed stale-there was no personality behind the stories. This is amazing both in content and form, as the lives interwoven with the netsuke make them unforgettable. I visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s recent Asian exhibition in hopes of seeing netsuke firsthand. There were none to be seen, and nothing that was displayed struck a chord within me as did the stories behind these pieces.

Special thanks to Chatto & Windus London for the Review Copy. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson

Translated from the German by Iva Jarosy

“One cannot cut the lines of experience out of one’s face, like the rotten bits in an apple; one has to carry them about in one’s face and know that one carries them; one sees them, as in a mirror, every day when one washes oneself, and one cannot cut them out, they belong there.”

“He had swore to her…that this was how it had all happened, as though he had first to mist the mirror slightly with his breath before he could dare to look into it. […] What can a man do but breathe at the mirror and look gently at his misted image?”

Mirrors are a repeating motif in Hans Keilson’s novel, The Death of the Adversary. Written during WWII, this novel has been republished this year. The Los Angeles Times wrote enthusiastically “It's as if, one morning, we were to learn that not only had Anne Frank survived the secret annex but was also still among us.” (Sept 26, 2010*) Mirrors generally symbolize self-reflection and contemplation, and are fittingly used to describe the inner questions that plague a young man as he realizes that Hitler’s influence was inevitably going to change his life. First, he hears his parents whisper and worry, and tries to decipher the codes they seemed to be speaking in. Next he finds himself an outcast in the neighborhood as the other children begin to avoid him. His mother takes the well-intentioned step of intervening on his behalf, trying to convince the children that they are all alike and should play together. His humiliation is complete, and never fully leaves him. Thus, he begins focusing on his “adversary”.

“…enemies will never die out in this world. They are recruited from former friends.”

The next salvo comes from a close friend who reveals he supports Hitler’s agenda. He explains to the unnamed protagonist that it is simply a matter of balance: just as elks need wolves to control their species and balance their habitat, so too, Germany is balancing itself. For the greater good, he implies. Their friendship quickly dissolves. The young man now explains the details of his experience, from strained friendships to watching his parents change to going into hiding.
Certainly, this novel has a more mature voice than Anne Frank’s diary. The protagonist is more somber and definitely more pessimistic. I didn’t find that the story gave any exceptionally new revelations about the time period, but it does provide a new perspective to describe the experience. One brief passage about the change in his parent’s attitude reveals a surprising aspect of human nature under trial: his father who bitterly lamented the rise of Hitler’s power becomes almost giddy with excitement when the horror begins, while his religious mother, who started out optimistic, begins to withdraw into depression and anxiety.

One thing that is especially fascinating is that Keilson never actually defines his adversary as Hitler. He uses the term “B” to represent him, although it’s clear of whom he speaks: a man with an evil plan and the power to implement it. Yet, at times “B” is also portrayed as an intangible force, a concept of evil bigger than the Holocaust. The ambiguity gives the reader pause to consider what defines evil and apply the revelations experienced to virtually anyone suffering oppression. Incidently, I was curious if by using the initial rather than the name, Keilson is attempting to lessen the power of Hitler’s name, giving it less fame. For example, notorious killers today are well known by name: Ted Bundy, Lee Harvey Oswald, or John Wayne Gacey. After a period of time when their horrific deeds are forgotten, they become simply a pop culture reference. By not using Hitler’s name, it could be that in some small way, Keilson doesn’t want to give him any further notoriety.

Special thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Review Copy.

For details on Keilson’s life experiences as well as details about both of his newly rereleased titles, see the link below.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Spilling the Beans on the Cat's Pajamas-Judy Parkinson

Popular Expressions-What They Mean and How We Got Them

This is one of the new titles from Reader's Digest's Blackboard Books series, and is a reference book for words and language. Principally, it covers all the idioms and phrases that are unique to English, the sort of cliche way things are said and how they became verbal shorthand.  Until you read the book, you may not realize just how popular phrases came into use, but this book clears up the history of both common and unusual ones:

  • Did you know that the phrase "fifteen minutes of fame" originated with Andy Warhol?
  • Or that the expression "here's mud in your eye!" originates with either horse racing or Jesus curing a blind man?
  • Austin Powers "not my bag, baby" refers to early jazz when a person's interpretation of music was their signature style, their 'bag'?
  • "Shake a leg" comes from a naval wake-up call?  "Women were allowed to sleep onboard ship when the navy was in port.  At the cry of "shake a leg", the occupant of a hammock had to show their leg. If it was hairy, they had to get up and work.  If not, the woman could stay and sleep in.  You needed to know that! 
  • Or that "to a T" refers to the measurement of a drafter, using a T-square to keep lines accurate?
This is a fun book, done in an alphabetical format by phrase.  Some of the etymology goes back centuries, others are fairly new.  In any case, it would be a great reference for a student or especially someone learning English and who may be unfamiliar with such usage.

Special thanks to Julie Harabedian from FSB Associates for the Review Copy.

E=MC Squared---Simply Physics by Jeff Stewart

Why Balloons Rise, Apples Fall, and Golf Balls Go Awry

I'm not great with anything too scientific.  I took high school physics and was pretty much laughed out of the class.  See, with English classes, you can bluff a bit...throw in some big words, use the phrases "poignant" and "intriguing" often, and you can pretty much wing it.  (I hear you saying my review process is similar!) Really, there are no wrong answers in English.  Of course, that approach didn't work out so well in physics, and chemistry was also a disaster.  I pretty much destroyed my GPA between those two subjects.

In any case, I felt a twinge of stupidity when I received E=MC2 to review...was it going to be too tough?  Would I have to resort to calling it poignant with intriguing explanations of the scientific method?  Actually, no.  Like the other books in the newest Reader's Digest series (I've reviewed two in the past and am hitting you today with two more), these are readable and the explanations make sense.  I hate to think that the subject has been dumbed down, but maybe that's the key.  For those of us who simply don't grasp things we can't really observe, this book is the way to go.  It takes scientific principles but explains them in real-life examples, like car crash statistics or golf ball trajectories. 

The book is broken into the different disciplines:  Forces, Momentum, Energy and Power, Heat and Matter, Waves, Relativity, and Quantum Physics are just some of the subsections.  My favorite was Waves because it explains both sound and light waves as well as the force of motion in oceanic waves.  It discusses the interference principle, but also the power of each wave in proportion to its height, and then goes forward to a real-life example of how exponentially stronger waves that come with hurricanes behave, and why they cause so much damage. 

It also explains the Doppler effect that you see on nightly weather forecasts and shows how that relates to what is known about the far edges of the universe.  Stewart uses examples from the movies The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to explain the principles behind momentum.

This certainly is the most complicated of the books in the series, so it's definitely geared to an adult with curiousity about the natural world and the laws of physics:  these laws don't change, and understanding how they work isn't just interesting, it's helpful in real life.  A teenager or brainy preteen might also enjoy the explanations.

Special thanks to Julie Harabedian of FSB Associates for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The House of Widows by Askold Melnyczuk

James Pak is a smart guy-he's heading to Oxford and his qualifications are impeccable.  He knows the facts of history, is well-educated in most fields,  has a gentlemanly manner, is apparently good looking, and cash doesn't seem to be an issue.  He seems to have it all together, except for the haunting questions about his father's suicide that nag at him in inopportune moments.  His main problem seems to be that while he studies the facts of history, he doesn't understand the emotions that are interlinked with it.  Unless one can ascertain both, they aren't prepared to deal with some of the ugly truths that surround them.

In this novel, The House of Widows, we see James try to make sense of it all.  He travels to one of his father's oldest friends, looking for answers.  Much about her is veiled in mystery, and her strange brother and her adopted Palestinian daughter complicate James' understanding as well.  He discovers that what he thought about his father was so wrong that it has to change how he thinks about himself.  In fact, James plays the unreliable narrator to perfection.

The novel travels throughout the world, with James on a quest for answers, yet ignorant to some of the solutions he carries with him.  War is a repeating motif that underlines the emotional ties to history.  They can't be separated and defined on a page.  And the trouble that comes with searching for answers is realizing that the answers may be worse than your imagination.  On top of that is the knowledge that in many cases, such as the Middle East (where portions of this book take place), there are no easy answers that are palatable to all.

A few times my jaw dropped in shock at some of the revelations, and at other times I was a bit overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.  It is may find it difficult to put down, which is probably for the best because it's easy to lose track of each character if you step away for long.  Be prepared for surprises, and if you really want to appreciate it, have a map of Western Europe at hand.  The only thing that mildly annoyed me about the book was some of the dialogue felt surreal-a bit unrealistic in the way seemingly ordinary people speak.  Yet that too reveals part of the complexities of their emotional baggage.

Special thanks to Erin Kottke from Graywolf Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bosnia-In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, Tony Fabijancic

If you are going to make a journey, you know it’s not going to be dull if your companion has a reputation for getting into fights. It could even be dangerous if you are travelling to a location still rife with racial and cultural tensions. Thus, it’s with great wisdom that Tony Fabijancic’s wife suggested his father go along as guide and possible referee on his journey to Bosnia. Why Bosnia?

First, Fabijancic’s father emigrated from Croatia, and the region has held his son’s fascination for a lifetime. But more intriguing is Tony Fabijancic’s obsession with understanding Gavrilo Princip, an obsession that leads him to research the cultural, political, and geographical influences of the former Yugoslavia-then and now. The result of that trip is Bosnia:  In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip.

I never knew Gavrilo Princip by name, only his identity as the man who started WWI with his assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. I didn’t even see how the event was that big of a deal; as noted in the book, assassinations in the area weren’t exactly unusual. Why was the impact so big? And why did Princip do it in the first place? It’s a subject I’d wondered about but never pursued.

Similarly, in the 1990s, when the Bosnian conflict headlined the news, I had no way to differentiate between a Croatian, a Bosnian Serb, or a Muslim Slav, or if Kosovo was a person or place. I hate to admit that before this book, I probably couldn’t have found B-H on a map; my knowledge being especially vague about Yugoslavia and the USSR. And while history at times can be boring, learning it from the personal perspective usually enlivens it. Thus, this book is far more powerful than its size would suggest. From the perspective of a road trip, with anecdotes and photographs that make the journey more personal, a reader learns the history of the region from Austria-Hungary’s occupation through the Baltic Wars, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, as well as the religious differences (Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox) and the racial divide that still fuels pride and conflict.

The author addresses part of the image that Westerners may have of the area: “Because of Bosnia’s reputation as an inherently violent place, filled with ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’, it finds itself squarely situated within the ambit of the Balkans, which have acquired derogatory qualities in the West’s wider social imagination.”

He meets a Croatian shepherd that still lives off the land with his flock for weeks at a time, a lifestyle that’s millenniums old. They drive through cities nearly abandoned, houses still showing the scars of bombings, villages with just a few old residents remaining, and long neglected cemeteries. The ethnic divides are still steep, and various regions still feel volatile to a nervous traveler. Some subjects are simply not safe to talk about, as Fabijancic learns. Even the character of Princip is conflicted: some view him as hero, others as a scar on their reputation. As the travelers retrace his journey to Sarajevo, where he ultimately succeeds in killing Ferdinand, they are able to see places where he had lived, socialized, and plotted. In uncovering the history of the Serbian lands, they simultaneously uncover the biography of Princip, the events of the assassination, and the trial that ensued.

At one point, they visit the bridge over the river Drina, a location famous in literature by Nobel winner Ivo Andric and also in history: in 1992 “hundreds of Muslims were herded onto the bridge and along the riverbanks, murdered and dumped in the Drina, turning its green waters red. Others were forced into buildings and incinerated alive.” This type of ethnic cleansing occurred on all three sides of the conflict, but the realization that this happened within my children’s lifespan is a bit staggering. The violence in the conflicts seems especially heinous.

This is not a dry read…it’s sobering but still amusing at times-it reads like a novel. It reminded me a bit of Andrzej Stasuik’s Fado although exploring a different region. This is the way history should be read-through lively narration and not dry data and charts. I am terribly enthusiastic about this book because it feels valuable-it doesn’t solve the problems there but by neutral observation it helps an outsider understand them, as well as the bigger picture of the brutality of mankind’s yearning for domination.  The photography should be noted:  the black and white images are stark and bring out the humanity in the faces shown.

Special thanks to Cathie Crooks of Canada's University of Alberta Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Charity to Help in a Scary Time-

If you are considering a worthy charity to donate to, in any amount, let me share one that I discovered with a cause that is near to my heart.
The Jack & Abby Neonatal Foundation raises money for families of infants in the NeoNatal Intensive Care unit (NICU).  Usually, it's because of premature birth that a baby has to stay in the NICU, and it often requires the transfer of the preemie to a hospital in a large city.  This entails a huge amount of expense outside of the hospitalization:  rooming, food, travel expenses, and gear for the smaller-than-average baby runs up fast.  While some babies spend only a few days, others can be there for six months or more.  This organization, found at helps parents in that situation financially as well as with advice for handling the stress and medical terminology.  It's a scary time....they can help.

Why is this subject dear to me?  My youngest son was born in 2007, approximately 10 weeks early.  He had to be immediately transported to a larger hospital about an hour a way from where he was born.  He spent the next six weeks in that hospital.  It was heartbreaking, because I couldn't immediately travel with him.  I had to wait five days to even see him (but Daddy and Grandma got to go).  In any case, I'll spare you the emotional drama but share that the an organization like Jack and Abby could have been helpful-I had no idea what we were in for. 

The hospital was amazing, and they had an organization that provided small studio cottages for parents of NICU babies at $25 a night...a steal in the expensive location!  But, we could only stay six consecutive nights, then had to leave to offer an opening to another parent, and after a space opened again we'd get another six nights at the low rate.  This saved us a huge amount of money, but even with it, the hotel we had to stay in nearest the hospital was closer to $200 per night (and we weren't there to do anything but sleep).  Being far from home meant living off cafeteria food and vending machine snacks.  In that position, the last thing you want to do is find a restaurant, and the studios didn't feature kitchens.  So, long story short, it was a difficult time, and an organization that can help a parent during such a time is a great thing-especially in that their own tragic experience makes them attune to the needs during this time.

In all, we were fortunate...our rainy day fund came in handy because indeed, it was symbolically stormy!  We now have a perfectly healthy boy, and I credit the nurses and doctors at the NICU for helping him through various crises.  Other parents with longer stays and medical complications may not be as fortunate:  this organization can help them with their preemie needs during and after hospitalization!

If you are looking for an organization to send all your surplus cash lying around, I'm sure they'd appreciate it! Note that it's an .org suffix and not .com, it matters.  Also, they are a 501 (3)(c) charity.  Their page loads slowly at times, please be patient!

*One really cool memory:  the six cottages that the hospital provided were known in the community for their purpose, so occasionally we'd return late at night from the NICU to find a bottle of wine, or vase of flowers, on the doorstep.  Strangers are awfully sweet sometimes!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Tree by John Fowles, nature writing

This is the 30th anniversary edition of John Fowles legendary essay about trees.  Or rather, what trees mean in a greater sense than just the biological.  At first, I expected this to be similar to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring-both were written decades ago.  However, this slim text is more of a set of questions rather than answers.  In fact, despite the title, it could be said that trees are just the smallest portion of his purpose.

"Do we feel that unless we create evidence-photographs, journal entries, picked and pressed flowers, tape recordings, pocketed stones-we haven't actually been intimate with nature?"

Fowles was known for writing The French Lieutenant's Woman as well as other fiction titles.  Here, in this book, he discusses via anecdotes the relationship between humans and nature, and the juxtaposition between nature on its own and our experience of nature.  First, the introduction by Barry Lopez comfortably sets the scene, and hints that this is no simple environmental manifesto.  And never does Fowles lecture about how people should view nature;  rather, he talks about what nature may or may not mean in a larger sense.

For example, he talks about his childhood home where his father cultivated small garden and fruit trees.  Nothing was out of place, and while it was in the city, his father managed to tame anything unruly from the garden.  Clearly it was his goal to conquer the plot of land. He was the victor over it.  Yet his son, Fowles, purchases property that is larger, but by no means tame.  Fowles neither cultivates or cuts back, he sees no point in amending the soil, pruning the trees, and to the horror of his father, the parcel of land is wild.  Is it a moral battle over who conquers the natural world?  Is it nature if you've directed its every movement?  Fowles doesn't presume to answer, he just asks.

In a further irony, which tells a great deal about his father, Fowles recalls how his father could walk for miles in the city, yet would only hike a few hundred meters in the countryside.  The untame pastoral scene frightened him or inhibited him, likely because of its chaos.  Thus, Fowles discusses chaos in nature, and how the most lovely of scenes is never the most natural.  He also makes a valid point that our modern society, with three decades of hindsight added since this was written, has used film and photography to 'show' nature, making the interaction with it less urgent.  How often do people seek it out?  Is putting a pot of daisies on the patio nature or decor?  Do we travel to faraway places to imbibe unique cocktails or are we willing to hike in a forest for no other purpose than to look?  Again, he gives no condescending or judgmental answer, he just asks thought provoking questions.  

Since the last few years have produced epic and beautiful DVD collections for large screen televisions, like Planet Earth, does nature seem to be something we order up on the Netflix queue or purchase at Costco?  It should be noted that this is not a nature 'journal', nor a guide to trees.  There are no photos or etchings to illustrate it, and that's appropriate in that Fowles doesn't feel a photograph can replicate nature satisfactorily.  I enjoyed this very much, and wish that Fowles would have spent a bit more time discussing his own experiences, as well as suggested ideas for conservation and preservation. 

Special thanks to Rachel Bressler and Michael McKenzie at Ecco Books for the Advance Review Copy.  This title is newly released.

Not The Booker Prize winner from The Guardian-a tie!

The UK’s Guardian newspaper has counted the tally for the prize for their Not the Booker Prize book contest. And it was a tie.

See, here’s the thing that ticks me off…the idea was great, but the execution was faulty, and the blame went to fans of the books rather than the setup of the contest.

Apparently, when the longlist for the titles was voted on, there was a lot of buzz for two of the titles. Many people wrote in to support their favorite (i.e. as instructed to by the Guardian). The Guardian, despite the massive hits their website gained, cried foul and complained that it was social networking that was generating the buzz. Implying that it was friends of the authors, particularly Lee Rourke’s, that inflated the tabulation, not actual talent. Vicious debate ensued via the Guardian discussion boards.

Note that voters could choose any title, regardless of whether they read it or any of the others. It was this fact that made the whole contest nonsense and created the debate. NOT any sort of networking conspiracy, which in fact is insulting to the authors themselves. Sure, I bet some of the called their mom and said ‘go to the website, create an account, log in, wait a ghastly amount of time for the page to load, find the link to make a comment, and write my name in’. Probably a mom would do that, not many else would take the time.

Then, when voting time came, the Guardian decides to implement a sort of gatekeeper strategy by requiring voters to show that they have previously participated in the discussions pre-vote (actually, a decent idea). After this, voting commenced, and The Canal (by that naughty Lee Rourke) and Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton received an equal tally of votes, the first tie the Guardian has reported.

What’s wrong with this picture? Because of the faults in their system, they blame those who participated, as well as the authors themselves.  I can't get over how much has been directed at Rourke.  It was their contest, and their rules.  If they are so hung up on adoring another title, then why did they open it to the public?  Were they sure that they could sway the results with their passive-aggressive digs at Rourke?  If you let the masses vote, you better be ready for the results.  Too bad they didn't take that into account.

Sam Jordison, upon announcing the results, ungraciously stated “the Not The Booker prize has long since ceased to be a literary competition,” but rather a result of the “quantity of names in the contact books of those promoting them.” Even with the tie, they still miminimized Rourke’s win with the remark “The Canal, meanwhile, is a sincere attempt to do something new and interesting. It might have a few flaws, but it does have a charm of its own.” Gee, that's big of them.  Doesn’t that sound a little snarky given that it just tied to win their prize? It garnered the votes, as simple as that. Do they have to keep going back to diss on Rourke somehow?

Both authors were classy about the results and far less facetious in the wake of the results than its organizers were. Apparently, a duel is scheduled.

Now, despite my rhetoric, I did vote, even though I hadn’t read all the titles. I didn’t want to try and make a point by not voting for one of my favorite books of the last five years. Does this make me a family member, publicist, paid spokesperson or Facebook friend of Rourke’s?  No, just a fan of some astonishing new writing.  In terms of improving this next year, how about let the uneducated masses (all of us who participated, apparently) vote on judges for the contest, and make them read all the books.  Perhaps this would be more agreeable to everyone.  The Guardian needs to step up and grow some class.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Princess, The King, and the Anarchist by Robert Pagani

Translated from the French by Helen Marx

The Princess, The King, and the Anarchist is a combination of fairy tale and history book, with all the necessary components for an intriguing novel. The book has an almost mathematical precision to it. For some reason, I kept getting a sense of the number three throughout the prose. First are the obvious three characters in the title, who are revealed by their first-person voices in the text. Second are the three levels of society represented: the monarchy (the king and princess), the masses who attend the wedding procession “young and old, peasants with roughened cheeks, darkened by the harsh Spanish sun”, and the outsider who wants to destroy the monarchy. Finally, there’s the significant thread of the past, present, and future that is woven throughout the narrative.

The story itself is based on the actual events of a 1906 attempt on the life of Spain’s Alfonso XIII as his wedding procession winds through Madrid. He’s just married England’s Mary Battenberg, who has converted to Catholicism and now bears the name “Queen Maria Eugenia”. The setting and characters are accurate, but the events are imagined. However, this historical fiction novel reveals truths about the turbulence of Spain’s monarchy as well as the resentment building within the nation.

The King is a worldly playboy. He spends the ride in the royal procession trying to analyze if he chose the right bride; after all, he had a bevy of female royals from all over Western Europe (eight in all) to choose from. He observes the crowds, but from a distance, with no visible feeling towards the multitudes turned out to see the big day. He points out to his bride the Ministry of Finance building, laughingly noting that he’s never bothered to visit it. Maria admires his handsomeness, noting his particular skills without irony: “He was one of those fortunate people who know things before the fact: how to make an omelette, tie a sailor’s knot, drive a car…Spain was lucky.” Clearly, the King was a figurehead with little concern for the tumultuous condition of Spain’s people at the time.

The Princess is a hopelessly naïve, and spends the journey worried about her wedding night and wondering where she can find a bathroom. Her need to solve that practical matter contrasts with the pomp and elegance of the wedding day, where the streets have been washed clean and the city is bathed in decorations. Her heart appears more open to the people who line the streets, and this reveals a more practical side to her personality as well. 

The anarchist, Fernando, is an especially fascinating character, obsessed with the propaganda of Francisco Ferrer’s Free Education movement. While not specifically detailed in the book, Ferrer’s role in inciting the anarchist to violence bears mentioning. Ferrer was part of a movement to improve on the current educational system in Spain, where illiteracy was as high as 73%. (1) Only a third of the children were educated in schools, and those schools were predominately clergy-run, paid for by students, and focused more on religious indoctrination than life skills. What Ferrer proposed was radical: secular schools for all children at a lower cost, where “the proponents of rational education believed in knowledge derived from both experience of, and interaction with the world - "learning by doing." (1) He proposed that in his La Nueva Escuelas , “Instruction was to rely exclusively on the spontaneous desire of students to acquire knowledge and permit them to learn at their own pace. The purpose of the school was to promote in the students "a stern hostility to prejudice," to create "solid minds, capable of forming their own rational convictions on every subject."(2)

Whether Ferrer was an active part of the assassination plot is disputed in history; however, in this novel Fernando feels himself impelled to act on behalf of the leftist movements. He recounts conversations in his head with Ferrer, and one can only wonder if they actually took place. His rage against the monarchy and the Church is profound; he can find no way to reconcile any future hope with the existing conditions. He views the crowd, “…these great personages so sure of their God-given rights, steeped in their own importance with their bald heads and wrinkled necks. Haughty and overweening, yet pitifully vulnerable.”

I think that while the author spins this tale he’s also commenting on the irony of how the anarchist is the only one who really knows the history and the political issues involved, while the King is simply daydreaming. The common people just want to see the parade, and while their lives will not be changed, they are deluded into joy for the oblivious king. That some of them suffer on the King's account is not insignificant. Meanwhile, the anarchist actually has a plan, intent, and a goal. He's filled with a solitary purpose, even though his violent means of action may not be effective. The denouement is far from predictable, even if you've read the historical text.  Despite the anarchist's motivation, it is the practical nature of Maria that eventually settles everything.

As may be obvious, I really enjoyed this novel. My only complaint was it was too short! Despite my noticing the connection of things ‘coming in three’, nowhere does it become formulaic or dull. The characters are true to life, and the contrast between the rich and idle with the poor and overworked is easy to imagine. It would be possible to read the events of 1906 with a clinical eye in a history book, and miss the story beneath. While fictionalized, one is reminded that history is made up of real people, bad decisions, and terrible consequences.

This novel releases today, October 15, 2010.
Special thanks to Tamara at Helen Marx Books for the Advance Review Copy.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Blood Knots Luke Jennings 2010 fishing, memoir, Britain

Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2010, Nonfiction

Of Fathers, Friendship & Fishing

Luke Jennings memoir starts out as peaceful recollection of his early childhood and his drive to learn to fish. He recounts his upbringing, his fascination with the natural world, and his early fears while in the theme of angling across England. He speaks fondly of his father, as well as a country hand named Tom who helped him learn the intricacies, indeed, the art of fishing. Patience and observation are skills he learns that serve him for a lifetime.

What is the appeal of fishing? “On the surface, the answer appears simple: to catch a fish. You want to deceive a wild creature, take it from its element, marvel over it and return it to the wild. But that’s only part of it – what you call the ego element. The living, wriggling proof of your skill and cunning. Proof that, in the right circumstances, you can get one over the natural world.” It’s partly the hunt but also the mystery that draws him, “What I can’t explain is that…it’s the revelation – the opening and closing of the shutter on an alien world. The tall, mysterious chamber of green, speared with light but vanishing into darkness.”
As his life progresses, naturally it becomes more complicated. He forms friendships and looks to his future with a range of emotions. His British life is continually touched by historical and political events both past and present, and he finds his way trying to balance that knowledge and still maintain the childhood mystery. He always returns back to the pond or river to restore his outlook. He soon becomes acquainted with a larger-than-life figure, Robert Nairac, who influences his life as a friend and mentor, teaching him history while at the same time teaching him falconry. This influence can’t be minimized, and no doubt the violence that ends Nairac’s life is both shocking and somehow expected.

Throughout, however, the return to nature is much as Wordsworth describes-a function to restore peace. The book itself is peaceful, quiet almost, and the descriptions of landscape and people are detailed and revealing. The overall feel is just as soothing as a river, even when tragedy occurs. The author also is clearly devoted to fishing: he drops names of famous books and fishermen in British culture that may well be familiar to readers there. His description of fishing is not a hobby, but a lifestyle.  Conquering the wild indicates more than a subtle hint about his personality.

While I enjoyed it overall, a few times the quiet pace felt a bit numbing. It seemed repetitive in some of the descriptions of the ‘hunt’. The other thing, strictly a personal issue, is that I simply cannot comprehend ‘catch and release’ fishing. It is supposed to be more humane, but seems barbaric to me. If someone wants to fish to provide food, fine. But to hook a fish, possibly damaging its mouth and scaring it to death in the process, just to throw it back, seems kind of sadistic. I realize it’s the thrill of the hunt that Jennings explains, but I still don’t understand. I realize some hooks are not barbed, but still, it yanks on their body and they fight against it, perhaps damaging their gills or other fish parts, for what? Lastly, since it is a true story, I thought photographs of some of the locations and people might have been helpful.

Special thanks to Atlantic Books in the UK for the review edition.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson (literary fiction)

Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith

It’s tough being a poet. First, there’s the whole stereotype of the cerebral, tortured artist who offers the world little but obscure verses. Then your Dad starts doing the passive-aggressive thing and slights your work whenever he can. Your son calls your career a ‘hobbyhorse’. You get no respect.

This is the world for Sturla Jon, a sucessful poet from Iceland. He’s tough, sarcastic, and is finding it hard to even respect himself anymore. He still writes poetry, but since he’s hit fifty, he wants to do something more. Novels, maybe. He’s dissatisfied with most of his life, and it’s starting to show:

“In Sturla’s opinion, there is an irony to this that results from a deception the poet himself perpetrates: when it comes down to it, his value is only ever evident from the price tag on the book…”

And to make one big step away from the starving artist that he imagines typical poets to be, he goes out and buys a top-notch overcoat, high style and big money. He’s old-fashioned, and decides the cell phone pocket will be perfect for his cigarettes. That one detail shows a great deal about him: he isn’t fitting in with the times.

“One moment Sturla feels there is depth and purpose to his writing but the next…he, the poet, starts to think that he can’t see anything in the production of poetry but emptiness and the surface emotion that still lifes offer: more or less beautiful textures, at best, things better suited to being the subject of a watercolor on the wall of a room.”

So with this new overcoat, and an invitation to a poetry festival in Lithuania, he makes a new plan. He’s going to move towards an experimental form of literature, and 'review' the events of the festival before it even happens. His cynical and disparaging review reflects all the clichés of poetry, and poetry festivals in general. Bad food, terrible lodging, and worse, pretentious poets who take themselves far too seriously than he thinks they deserve. His caustic review makes him feel fresh and innovative, and he leaves for Lithuania with low expectations.

However, despite the fact he condemns the poet’s lifestyle as often as possible, it’s revealing that he still wants to go. Why not just skip it? This is one of the complicating facets to Sturla: he’s not really sure what he wants to be, and at his age, it’s hard to change. His life is full of contradictions: he wins money (that he doesn't need) at a slot machine when he’s just killing time, and his aging father gets more attention from the ladies than he does. While he works part-time as a building superintendent (possibly the diametric opposite of a poet), he likes to hint to people that he’s a published poet. Who is the real Sturla?

Only in Lithuania does Sturla even begin to understand just how he fits in, and his exploits there are terrifying, frantic, and sometimes slapstick. He realizes that his “predicted” review is not only wrong, but almost criminally so. 

Lest this sound too serious, keep in mind that Sturla is possibly one of the funniest characters I’ve run across. He’s snarky and witty, and throughout the narrative there is a remarkable amount of humor as he pokes fun at himself, his family, and most of all, the literary world. The author, Bragi Olafsson, writes Sturla as the least expected poetic figure: needy yet badass, sensitive but acerbic, and always unpredictable.

The book in whole is more comedic than serious. Yet it also gives a unique glimpse into the world of literature and translation, cultural disparities, and historical influences that define a geographic location. I loved the little things that make Sturla a real person: the way he’s annoyed by his Dad’s constant calls on the new cell phone he finally gets, his simple desire to just get a cup of decent coffee, and the way he mentally rehearses little remarks to himself to get them right.  Additionally, Olafsson hints at the need for poetry and literature as a means of dealing with the contradictions and complexities we all face. 

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter Books (University of Rochester)
for the Advance Review Copy.
This title released yesterday, October 12, 2010.

Contest: Breaking Night by Liz Murray (memoir)

Thanks to Hyperion for sending an additional copy of the new memoir by Liz Murray, Breaking Night.  She's an inspiring young woman who went from homelessness to Harvard, and she chronicles her journey in this book.

I'm offering a new first edition hardcover of Breaking Night to a random winner, from the US or Canada only (sorry!), to be selected on November 5, 2010.  On that date, my own review for the book will post, and the winner will be notified.

The rules are typical:  followers can enter, leaving me an email address or some way to contact them in a comment below.  One extra entry is allotted if a commenter also tweets about the giveaway (just leave a link or your twitter ID).  The winner has 48 hours to respond with mailing information or a new winner is selected.  Please note:  you must be a follower of the blog to enter.

Special thanks to Hyperion for providing two copies, one for review and one for giveaway.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exley by Brock Clarke

After you finish reading Exley, by Brock Clarke, you may need to take a few moments to catch your breath. You may not sleep well, and that’s certainly not because of anything horrific or scary in the book. This book, quite simply, messes with your mind.

First, the characters are wildly created and completely unpredictable. It starts with Miller, or M-, who is a child prodigy on a quest to find his father who left the family suddenly and without explanation. He’s a weird little kid, but likable, and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him as he misses his dad.  The only explanation he can find is that his father must have left for Iraq (they live in an army base town), and this explanation doesn’t sit well with his mother. She arranges for him to meet with a psychiatrist to discuss Miller’s ‘wild imagination’. Miller and the doctor form a tentative relationship, with Miller’s explanations sounding more reasonable than anyone else’s.

The key to all of this, to separate it from any number of books about dysfunctional families, is Exley. Frederick Exley, is the author of A Fan’s Notes, the favorite book of Miller’s father. His father’s so tied to Exley’s books that when he gets a phone call on 9/11 to tell him to turn on the television, he can’t be bothered. He’s too busy re-reading the book. The book becomes Miller’s only connection to his dad. He carries on his father’s obsession and turns to Exley (or at least anything even remotely related to Exley or his writing) to bring him back. With book in hand, he searches all over Watertown to find a connection and an explanation. In between searching, he teaches his father’s English class at the Junior College, meets a mysterious young woman who may have known his father, and visits the VA hospital searching for clues. This is one busy kid.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Pahnee, isn’t exactly the appropriate choice for a mental health professional for Miller. This makes him perfect in terms of the book. Because while Dr. Pahnee utters the traditional psychobabble, he’s also not above prowling Miller’s house when no one’s home, and following him around to verify if any of Miller’s claims could possibly be true (both of them on bikes). He’s not above hitting on Miller’s mother, and as several of the chapters are written as his patient notes, we see just how far out of the range of normal he is. He is given to uttering repetitive phrases-repetitive and, indeed, annoying. (Just like that sentence!) Quirky doesn’t even begin to describe him.

Clarke writes the characters in a brisk way that creates instant visuals: he describes the father “like a bear with hurt feelings.” The mother is an uptight lawyer whose emotions are best deciphered by the position of her hands on her hips, and who is so rigid that her business suits are assigned a certain day to be worn. Everyone else that Miller meets fits the same non-mold, and the effect is dizzying. Despite the craziness, there is a genuine thread of humanity that aims to understand how much (or how little) of what we want to believe relates to what actually is true. It also toys with the idea of imagination as a therapeutic process, a means to adjust to and possibly accept changing circumstances.

The book reminded me a bit of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has a child protagonist on a similar journey. Yet Clarke’s novel has a more satisfying ending, and doesn’t fold up quite as neatly. The flawed and outrageous characters for the most part were still sympathetic. My only irritation was that the character of Miller’s mother seemed apathetic much of the time, and insensitive to Miller’s father need. And to be honest, at times the unpredictable events almost became predictable once you get involved into the story…it’s as if you begin to expect more of the same. The cleverness that was refreshing at first, did, albeit only a few times, get stale.

Special thanks to Megan Fishmann of Algonquin Books for the Review Copy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

National Poetry Day, Philip Gross poem "Room Inside"

From the website for National Poetry Day, a classic Philip Gross poem:

Room Inside

Philip Gross

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes
except me:

a still room, a light room,
a where-I-go-to-write room,
an any-day, any-time, a middle-of-the-night room,
a feeling-low-and-slow or a high-as-a-kite room.
Feel free!

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes.
There are cupboards and corners that nobody knows
inside me.

There’s a room in my house where nobody has been
from Friedmanlynn on
except me:
a just-behind-your-face room,
an orbiting-in-space room,
an earthquake-shaking-with-the-thumping-of-the-bass room,
a somewhere-to-escape-to-outside-the-human-race room,
a just-close-your-eyes-and-you’ll-vanish-without-trace room

There’s a room in my house where nobody has been.
There’s a view from my window nobody has seen
inside me.

There are secret compartments that nobody’s guessed
except me:
a shadow room, a cool room,
a chalky-smelling school room,
a kidney-shaped Hollywood parties-by-the-pool room,
an old-French-blokes-in-berets-playing-boule room,
a rusty-dusty buckets full of grandfather’s tools room,
a locked trunk that might be full of jewels room

There are secret compartments that nobody’s guessed.
There’s another direction than north/south/east/west
inside me.

There’s a room that is private, that no one can own.
Come and see.
A music room, a dance room,
a things-found-quite-by-chance room,
a jungle room, a tigers-in-amongst-the-potted-plants room,
a hiding-from-a-hundred-jolly-uncles-and-strange-aunts room,
no family…

An X marks the spot room,
a don’t ask why, why-not room,
a sauna-in-the-winter-and-a-freezer-when-it’s-hot room,
a sail-to-the-horizon-in-a-little-tin-pot-yacht room
with its own sea.

A cellar room, an attic room,
a semi-automatic room,
a can’t-sit-still-cos-I’m-too-emphatic sort of amateur-dramatics room –
oh, tragedy!

There’s a room that is private, that no one can own.
You can build one yourself out of breath, flesh and bone.
There’s a padlock that opens to nobody’s key.
Just knock,
and wait,
and knock,
and wait,
and when a voice says ‘Who’s there?’
say, ‘Just me’.

From the UK Poetry Day website
Click on tab at top for recent Poetry reviews to get leads on some newer poem collections in several styles of poetry.  Especially noteworthy is Pablo Neruda and Manolis.

Earth (The Book), Jon Stewart

From the Publisher's webpage: ...When it became apparent to Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show that the world was about to end, they embarked on a massive mission to write a book that summed up the human race: What we looked like; what we accomplished; our achievements in society, government, religion, science and culture -- all in a tome of approximately 256 pages with lots of color photos, graphs and charts.

Jon Stewart's newest book, Earth, is fashioned as an encyclopedia of human history and life on Earth.  For aliens.  For student aliens.  Sort of a travel guide to help aliens figure out what went on in this strangest of locations.  He starts big, covering topics from Location and Weather, to Life (in all its forms), Basic Needs, War, Entertainment, Religion, and Medicine.  It's similar to any encyclopedia a kid may have, except it's not for kids.  It's filled with snarky humor, bitter irony, and more than a few awkward moments.

He (and his team of writers) dish on everything with the trademark Daily Show kind of humor.  For example, in discussing the extinction of the T. Rex, it says "couldn't reach heart pills stashed on top shelf".  Regarding skunks and their possible evolutionary adaptation: "Skunks emitted a powerful scent to let potential predators know that they had just been hit by a car." 

It mocks the American culture of gadgetry, especially with an actual size Iphone and all its apps:
  • Camera-replaced camera, film, lenses, standards for what constitutes a photo.
  • Slurp-tasted your soup for you
  • Virtual Zippo-Replaced lighter, except in sense of creating heat or light
  • Chipotle-Located the nearest Chipotle restaurant
  • Chipoto-potty-directed user to bathrooms within 100 years of the Chipotle they just ate at.
And finally, it remarks "the Iphone could do almost anything except love you back".

In discussing Entertainment, it explains for its extraterrestrial readers, "The two most basic modes of storytelling were comedy and tragedy.  Tragedy allowed an audience to feel a charater's pain.  Comedy allowed an audience to heartily enjoy a character's pain.  Both modes originated in ancient Greece in plays featuring protagonists and antagonists, along with a large chorus so the less talented kids could participate." 

It is clever, and a few places had me giggling.  A few places were shockingly offensive, even with the sarcasm in place. Visual plays on brand names, famous events, and celebrities are amusing.  Sprinkled throughout are quizzes and scavenger hunts called "Earth Search", as well as some sample forms for aliens to understand the HMO application process.  Some of the photoshopping and conceptual ideas are beyond inventive:  The Periodic Table of the Synthetic that adds Axe body spray and Tang to the list of mankind's  important chemical substances is epic.

So...did I like it, beyond the laughs?  The thing about Jon Stewart that I've always enjoyed is the topical humor in terms of current events-his take on politicians, laws, and world news.  This was more pop culture history, and while funny, I can't imagine that even a resident of Earth would get some of the humor just a decade from now.   It's sort of like reading the stories in a Reader's Digest-a cute little paragraph that makes you smile but you forget five minutes later.  In other words, despite the underlying message of just how messed up the world is, there's really no clear focus beyond the irreverent* humor. 

*just try and find a reference to Jon Stewart that doesn't use this word

Special thanks to Kelly Leonard of Grand Central Publishing for the Review Copy. 
This title was just released. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Inspector Kobold, Durs Grunbein, poem

Translated from the German by Michael Eskin, and featured in the 9/27/10 issue of The New Yorker magazine:

Inspector Kobold

Sea horses-who knows
What he was thinking.

Chess pieces made of fruit jelly
Or hand-blown glass?
Photo from
Appearing only in profile,
Sad clowns of the moody sea,

They turn Poseidon's fields
Into a Spanish riding school:

Tiny ocean Lipizzaners.

Only, they don't seem to enjoy the dressage-
Judging by their faces-
These flute mouths, slightly piqued.

 Does the current bother them, the kelp
In which their tails get caught?

Upright in their fish-bone corsets,
Ash-brown waistcoats, on their rounds of inspection
Through the dark algaeous spaces-

Unfazed by the sea urchins' sarabande.

I'm currently reading The Bars of Atlantis by Durs Grunbein, a selection of essays, so I was especially amused by this poem in The New Yorker.  It's true, isn't it, sea horses do usually look a bit surly?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Guest Post: On reading fiction, by Greg Zimmerman

I'm out of town for a few days and have arranged a special treat! The following is a guest post by blogger-reviewer extraordinaire Greg Zimmerman, from his blog The New Dork Review of Books at Greg works in publishing and his blog engages readers in intelligent discussions about books, content, and trends in publishing. Visit his blog to join the conversation!

A Reasonably Short, Fairly Impassioned Defense of Reading Fiction (originally posted by Greg on 9/27/10)

Just about every literary nerd has had this conversation at least once (and I had one recently):

Me: Oh, you're a reader - cool! What do you like to read?

Non-Literary Nerd: Non-fiction, almost exclusively.

Me: You don't like fiction?

NLN: Nope. There's too much to learn about the real world to read stuff that's made up.

Me: Sure, dude.

Hey, to each his/her own, I suppose. But to dismiss fiction for that reason, to me, is silly. Good fiction can teach us as much about the world — and more about what's important about the world — as any non-fiction. David Foster Wallace said that "fiction is about what it means to be a f#!@ing human being," and though fiction-haters would argue that that is counter-intuitive, my belief is that no truer words have ever been uttered.

I think it's pretty clear there is definite and demonstrable value to reading fiction. Of course, there are the obvious reasons: It's fun. It can relieve stress. It can lead to better spelling skills. It can make you sound smarter than that annoying acquaintance who knows everything about everything.

But, as DFW suggested, the real value of fiction is that it can help you learn to empathize with people who are different than you. You often hear writers say that when they finish a book, they "miss the characters." I've only begun really understanding what that means in the last several years, as my favorite novels of the last decade or so are realistic enough that they provide the opportunity for an actual relationship with the characters. And with that relationship comes an understanding of an alternate view of the world than my own. I love that. I love seeing the world through another set of eyes — even though they're fictional.

And so reading fiction also makes you more tolerant. It helps you see, in a non-contentious setting, different ways of thinking, world-views, philosophies, political theories than your own. You may disagree, but at least you understand. And understanding is ultimately the foundation for tolerance. Wouldn't things be much better with more tolerance, more moderateness? So, not only is fiction about what it means to be human, fiction can save the world!

So, there you have it: A short, but fairly impassioned defense of fiction. But I'm hoping you can help me expand on this idea. How does reading fiction help you interface with the world? Is this just a pie-in-the-sky idea, or do you think DFW was right?

I think his post raises many points to consider. The first thing I thought of was that those who primarily read non-fiction shouldn't assume that the genre always equates to 'true'. Non-fiction writing can be valuable but there's no doubt that facts can be slanted or even omitted to push an agenda. What do you think?  I'll be back soon and hope I have a boat-load of thoughtful comments!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Strangers at the Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes

The first thing I thought of as I read this book was that Vanderbes writes people very well.  Her characters are complicated, flawed, and still sympathetic.  None of them are stereotypically good or bad.  Rather, they are real.  This book has a large cast of characters, and each of them remains memorable even though I've finished the book.

The premise of the book is the gathering of a family for Thanksgiving.  The two parents, Gavin and Eleanor, their adult children, Douglas and Ginny, as well as Douglas' wife Denise and their children all congregate at Ginny's house for the big dinner.  A surprise guest is Ginny's new adopted child Priya, a mute seven-year old girl from India.  The novel splits into different narratives as the author describes, third-person, each of the characters.

Eleanor, an aging sort of Mrs. Cunningham (from Happy Days), is controlling yet naive, with no grasp of how to interact with her family except to tell them what to do.  Her focus is on material objects:  the perfectly set table, the correct baking temperature for turkey.  She appears unable to have a real conversation with anyone.  In fact, she inwardly wonders if her adopted granddaughter came with any "guarantees".  Her life has only one focus:  motherhood.  She constantly questions why her children don't appear to need her anymore, while she remains devoted and willing to do anything for them.  She's even known to send herself cheery postcards, and while at first she annoys, you realize the pain that makes her act this way. 

Ginny is her daughter, an academic who lives to show off her knowledge and gloating at any perceived ignorance. Her knowledge is a cover for her feelings of worthlessness.  She's adopted Priya suddenly in a grasp at finding meaning:  instant motherhood is the answer she comes up for in her search for happiness.  Sadly, she can't seem to relate to the child in any degree, and treats her more as a small housepet.  Her head knowledge leaves her little common sense, and her proposed feast becomes a disaster. 

Douglas is a verifiable doofus, a real estate developer sinking into debt, who annoys everyone with his fascinating for discussing hypothetical situations: 'what if you won the lottery!' In this way he can avoid the reality of his financial ruin.  His wife can't stand any of them, and only tolerates them because she dislikes her own family more.  Lastly, Gavin, the patriarch, is a Vietnam vet who feels worthless in his life as an insurance salesman, and feels threatened by anyone elses's success.

With a good premise and great characters, this novel has all the makings of a classic.  Only the plot is a little bit disappointing.  The character studies go on a bit too long, enough to make you wonder what the point is.  An undercurrent of an impending crime is hinted at, but occurs late in the novel.  The denouement is a bit unsatisfying as we never see how the characters evolve in any way, except for Eleanor.  However, her transformation is the key to the novel and saves it in the end.

While I enjoyed the author's voice, and the way it was snappy and fast-paced, she seemed to get off topic in a few places, namely a long discussion on Vietnam, another on menopause, and a thread on urban blight in the city.  These detours were distracting and stalled the narrative quite a bit.  The sudden denouement also felt forced.

Special thanks to Scribner Books for the Review Copy.
This title is on sale now.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Lust To Go by Nancy Pearl

Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers

Nancy Pearl is back! In case her name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s probably just about the coolest librarian you can imagine. If you tell her you want something adventurous, she won’t simply hand you a Jon Kraukeur book, she’ll ask you to be more specific. She could probably ask you half a dozen questions and then suggest the perfect title for you. She did this for the world when she wrote Book Lust a few years ago. In it, she compiled lists of authors and book titles (often with a synopsis) that have connections to other books. So if you wanted Irish Fiction, the category would give you a large list of fiction titles, some well known and others long out of print.  Similarly, she classified hundreds of books under different categories, some general(cold war spy novels) or more specific (novels written by physicians).

In her third book, Book Lust To Go, she tackles travel. To me, it’s the best of the series. These aren't Lonely Planet guides:  you aren't going to learn language or customs or cheap places to stay.  Instead, it collects a list of titles based on the destination.  You want books set in Finland? There’s a section for that, and it includes fiction and nonfiction from the region, as well as history books that may be useful. She covers the world with books; even the most obscure countries and cities have titles listed. Being able to see a grouping of several genres in one geographical category makes this the ultimate resource if you are studying a particular area or doing a regional reading challenge.

Besides travel to real cities, states, and countries, she includes sections on imaginary travel destinations. Also listed are groupings of books based on sailing, walking, rowing, travel by plane, etc. The book is complete and thorough:  this just released new collection is up to date. Books that were released as recently as a few months ago are listed in their appropriate region.  It's hard to hide my enthusiasm for this title, it's just that good, especially for those of us who are curious about the world around us...

Special thanks to Haley Stocking of Sasquatch Books for the Advance Review Copy.
This title is on sale now.

The Kuleshov Effect-film editing and perception

In reading Strangers at the Feast, by Jennifer Vanderbes, she discusses something called the Kuleshov Effect.  It has to do with context and editing, and how the placement of images can affect perception.  She explains it this way:  "Lev Kuleshov, a Russian filmaker, edited a short film using static images of an actor's face alternated with shots of a plate of soup, a girl at play, and a coffin.  After seeing the montage, audience members raved about the actor's varied emotional expressions-pensiveness, happiness, sorrow-when, in fact, the image of the actor was the same in all the shots.  Viewers created narratives based on merely the sequence of images..."

I thought this experiment was fascinating and did some research.  From one site, "Concerning emotional resonance in cinema the Kuleshov Effect is an important concept. It rests on the theory of montage and the effect that film editing has on evoking emotions from a viewer. It is not simply the content of a scene or the expression on the character's face, but the way in which images are cut together that can induce a feeling from the audience."
At another site, a more in-depth explanation, keeping in mind the name of the actor was Mozhukhin:
"The essence of the Kuleshov effect is filling in the blanks, or connecting the dots. Mozhukhin isn't actually looking at anything; he probably doesn't even know what they'll make him look at, so he can't possibly be reacting to it. He expresses no emotion, so an audience cannot possibly see emotion on his face, but the audience does. The viewer is presented with a situation or environment along with the academic fact that someone is experiencing it. He cannot simply accept the actor's evident emotion, as none is given, so he decides what the appropriate response would be and assigns it to the actor.

Now here's the real magic of it. The viewer dosn't realize the reaction is in his own mind. He assumes the actor shows it, but he can't see just how, so it seems like an almost magical projection of feeling by a brilliant actor. The viewer admires the actor's subtlety, and at the same time is more strongly affected by the scene. The character seems stoic, which at once impresses the viewer and lends weight to the emotion he does seem to display. In addition, the viewer wonders if others in the audience have caught the undercurrent, patting himself on the back for being so insightful. Backward as it may seem, the emotion of the scene is heightened in several different ways precisely because it is not being expressed at all.

This seems incredibly interesting, and I wonder if the same concept would apply to the editing and images used in the written word.  Could the placement of descriptive elements add to, or subtract from, the impact of a scene?  Could a writer frame specific words in a context that would change the perception, or increase the emotion that a reader imagines?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Homecoming Party by Carmine Abate

Translated from the Italian by Antony Shuggar

Caution: Do not read while hungry. Heavy emphasis on Italian food delicacies will leave you a bit weak.

The Homecoming Party tells the story of a father and son, and their close relationship despite geographic distance. It tells of the childhood of Marco, a boy who grows up mostly in the care of his mother and grandmother because lack of work required his father to travel to France. This leaves him as the man of the house essentially, although his older half-sister and baby sister ignore him. His father’s infrequent visits are the focus of his life; he spends most of his year awaiting them. His days are filled with school, exploring the rural region with his dog, and playing soccer with his friends.

While they live in Italy, they are ethnically an Albanian village that still speaks the Arbereshe language. It’s from this home region that his father must journey to France, accepting horrifying work conditions just to be able to send money home. He remains faithful to his family, and the distance tears at him. It’s in his absence that his oldest daughter starts to behave strangely, and begins distancing herself from the family.

The story begins with the father returning to the yearly Christmas bonfire in the small village. He’s happy to be home, and generous with food and gifts for the villagers. However, as father and son sit to observe the flames, they discuss the peculiar events of his sister, and flashbacks occur that explain the closer connection between father and son.

This fairly simple story packs an unexpected punch. First, it reminds you of similar people who have to travel to distant lands for work and basic sustenance, and the danger it puts the family in. It also reminds you that danger can be present anywhere, and not just found on a distant shore. Lastly, the power of language, even the difference between a dialect and a language, is revealed in some of the complexities that occur: a battle between the old world and modernization leaves little place for variance.

The plot is strong, as it backtracks through events, and the alternating voices reveal more than just what the child or the father may have understood on their own. A few times, however, I had to back up a several pages to figure out who was speaking, and also get back on track with the timeline of events.  Since the father and son are the focus, very little was drawn out about the women in the family and what influenced them: I wish that had been expanded on a bit more as I think it would have helped explain some of the issues. The descriptions of the scenery, and the simple details of family life and delicious food create a lovely backdrop for the moral issues in play.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Review Copy.

The page 99 test by Ford Madox Ford

The internet is abuzz with author Ford Madox Ford's assertion that a book can be deemed good or bad, worthy of reading or not, by opening it to page 99. The Guardian newspaper did a report on this, as well as an upcoming website that will let authors upload their 99th page for inspection.  The original article is at  Excerpts from the Guardian's article, by Lucy Mangan, are below:

Ford Madox Ford recommended instead that readers "open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you". A new website,, launches next month to test that premise. It will offer (courageous) authors and aspiring authors the chance to upload the 99th pages of their works and invite readers to comment on whether they would buy, or like to read, the rest.

In many ways, the page 99 test makes sense. By then – between a third and a quarter of the way through most books – the characters should be established, the author should have hit his or her stride (if he or she is ever going to) and it is far enough in to allow glimpses of an unfolding plot but too early to give away any vital clues or twists.

So does it work?  I picked up a few recent review titles, some that I loved, and others that I hated, to see if the 99th page revealed anything:

Strangers at the Feast:  liked the book, but page 99 had really no details that related to theme or impact
A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (review coming):  loved the book, and page 99 was revealing both in characters and plot
Safe From the Sea:  excellent book, but page 99 was neutral and neither added nor subtracted from story
Everything: hated book, didn't bother to review, page 99 equally meaningless
Horse Flower Bird:  neutral despite good book
Beside the Sea: agonizing page, spoiler as well, probably would have scared me off this amazing book
In the Company of Angels:  didn't even finish this awful book, page 99 insignificant

So for what my two cents are worth, Ford's idea seems more a parlor trick than an actual meaningful way to evaluate a book.  I still prefer reading the first chapter and the 'blurb' to get a feel for a book, and in this the results seem more accurate.

Additionally, despite the recent hype, there's been a website since 2007 with this very topic. ran by Marshal Zeringue.  It has some interesting titles and goes beyond just the page 99 trick.  (Thanks Marshal!)
In other news, sadly, Scholastic did a study of 3-17 year-olds about reading.  Part of their results were as follows:
39% of the kids said that information they find online "is always correct."

25% count texting with friends as reading and 28% consider catching up on Facebook reading.

-------the full article is on Shelfawareness' Thursday issue