nba longlist: a necessary rant, an inconvenient truth

NBA Longlist 2015

National Book Award Longlist 2015

National Book Award Longlist 2015

Not a word of complaint from this woman: Hanya Yanagihara (YES), Jesse Ball, Lauren Groff, Adam Johnson, Edith Pearlman, Nell Zink, T. Geronimo Johnson, Karen E. Bender, Angela Flournoy…

Oh, wait. Son of a bitch. Bill Clegg.

Nervous pulling of collar.

It’s like this: Did You Ever Have a Family is, how shall I put this… really awful. Bill Clegg is a big name literary critic. I do not question his credentials. However, having attempted and failed to read this novel the words “ungodly terrible” spring to mind.

Adjectives.

Cringe-worthy metaphors and similes.

Crawl out of your skin, teeth-gritting, primal scream of despair prose.

It’s a book in desperate need of an editor – in order to tell Clegg not to have published this book. Hate to resort to this harsh review, because it took my breath away for its candor,  but it’s the truth:

NY Times Review – Sept. 8, 2015

by Dwight Garner

“If you’re not willing to let this confident but shallow novel pour over you, as if you were a Belgian waffle, there’s no point to it at all. Unless you’ve got a funky old gas stove you need to tend to, right now.”

OUCH.

Look at it like this: Bill Clegg is a literary critic. His LinkedIn status is God. If you’re an author there’s an uncomfortable, squirm-in-your-chair with anticipatory angst chance he may someday be assigned something with your name on it. The risk of speaking with bald truth is the chance he’ll go Michiko Kakutani on your ass at some later time, leaving strips of skin stuck to a shirt saturated with your own blood.

While I can’t blame the raw fear, I despise the concept an author would let this stop him or her from honestly stating that which is fact: this book really sucks.

No one relishes facing someone about whom you’ve told an uncomfortable truth but above that, there is literature. There is truth. There is legacy. There is sleeping the sleep of artistic integrity. Knuckling under for fear of reprisal pimps what literature means, reducing it to the lowest common denominator of all:  ego.

Short story long: this is why Bill Clegg’s novel sits on the NBA Longlist, usurping a deserving book. As if we needed reminding: literature prizes are political.

This is a sad truth.

Woe is (not) me

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Just a sampling, loves.

Ah, bookish bookish love… These are a few review copies I have lying around the room, those which aren’t scattered further afield. Ideally, I like to keep the bulk of them in the same room – our family room, where the “main” computer is. Realistically, dream on.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, as well as This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (copy forthcoming) are upcoming review selections for The New York Journal of Books.

Heart of Darkness (for review here) is a new edition illustrated by the amazing, unparalleled Matt Kish (Moby Dick in Pictures). He has done it again, this time with Conrad’s classic:

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WOW.

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Jay Parini’s Jesus: The Human Face of God, Lavery’s The Conquest of the Ocean and The Best American Travel Writing, ed. by Elizabeth Gilbert, are Amazon reviews.

And the little birdie that sits atop them? It’s someone’s ceramics project I found for sale at Goodwill. I collect the cast-off pottery of others. I think it’s lovely and it saddens me to see it sitting on a shelf. Handmade things are to be loved and cherished, such is the duty I gladly perform.

In eBooks, I have a staggering number courtesy of NetGalley. Twenty or so, I believe. Of all of them, perhaps the one I most lust for is John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist.

freemannovelistAmazon:

     For the last fifteen years, whenever a novel was published, John Freeman was there to greet it. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the current editor of Granta, he has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles (many of them new or completely rewritten for this volume) of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he’s learned.
From such international stars as Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Mo Yan, to established American lions such as Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, and David Foster Wallace, to the new guard of Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and more, Freeman has talked to everyone.
What emerges is an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet still idiosyncratic guide to a diverse and lively literary culture: a vision of the novel as a varied yet vital contemporary form, a portrait of the novelist as a unique and profound figure in our fragmenting global culture, and a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring writer and engaged reader—a perfect companion (or gift!) for anyone who’s ever curled up with a novel and wanted to know a bit more about the person who made it possible.

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Archetype by M.D. Waters came from nowhere:

 

Emma wakes in a hospital, with no memory of what came before. Her husband, Declan, a powerful, seductive man, provides her with new memories, but her dreams contradict his stories, showing her a past life she can’t believe possible: memories of war, of a camp where girls are trained to be wives, of love for another man. Something inside her tells her not to speak of this, but she does not know why. She only knows she is at war with herself.

Suppressing those dreams during daylight hours, Emma lets Declan mold her into a happily married woman and begins to fall in love with him. But the day Noah stands before her, the line between her reality and dreams shatters.

In a future where women are a rare commodity, Emma fights for freedom but is held captive by the love of two men—one her husband, the other her worst enemy. If only she could remember which is which. . . .

The first novel in a two-part series, Archetype heralds the arrival of a truly memorable character—and the talented author who created her.

 

Well, somewhere but I know not of it. A new book, a new author. Why not?

Have a lovely evening. Read! Read! Read!

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The Sunday Salon – August 27 Edition: The reading week. Bits of This and That. And Hitler.

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route 66: the mother road herself

A bit of photography for you this sunny (here, at least), temperate day. I stood in the middle of the road to get this shot, in the heart of an almost completely abandoned Route 66 virtual ghost town. All the former businesses were derelict, windows broken, insides filled with debris. I'll be posting several other photos from this location throughout the week.

Have to cut this short this week. It's family birthday party day. (I know, yay.) My boys had their birthdays on July 30 and 31 (two years apart, not twins, which may actually be more remarkable) but we were on vacation then. Today's the first chance we've had to observe their joint birthdays. I still have loads to do; the house looks like Irene picked it up, tossed it around and threw it down again. We're nowhere near the coast, tucked away safely in metro Chicago, but you wouldn't know it by looking in our windows.

Hey, you aren't looking in our windows, are you? Because that's so not cool.

Reading news:

Still reading the Booker Longlist books, working on a couple reviews I'll have up on the blog and reading NetGalley eBooks on my iPhone.

I was reading Chris Bohjalian's The Night Strangers in bed last night. It has supernatural themes, which make me jumpy as a circus performer. When my husband let out a sudden SNORT in his sleep I swear I jumped a foot off the bed. My heart rate shot through the roof. It was not a fun time.

The Night Strangers

Chris Bohjalian

Crown, October 4, 2011

 

Nightstrangers

"In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts. 

The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain due to double engine failure. The body count? Thirty-nine.   
What follow is a riveting ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling, award-winning novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, meticulous research, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply. The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead."
– Amazon.com

Over the course of last week I reviewed:

A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann

The Curfew by Jesse Ball

We stopped by Catoosa, OK for a look at The Blue Whale.

And had a look at one image from an abandoned gas station along Route 66.

Next week I'll talk about a great book for writers/bloggers, another Booker Longlist read and, if I have the time, a couple long overdue eBook reviews. And, of course, more photos from sites along Route 66 from our summer vacation.

Have a good week. Stay safe if you're out East

 

Whokillhitler

 

The Doctor: Rory, take Hitler and put him in that cupboard over there. Now. Do it.

Rory: Right. Putting Hitler in the cupboard. Cupboard. Hitler. Hitler. Cupboard.

 

– Doctor Who, Episode 8, "Let's Kill Hitler"

Two extraordinary books, reviewed

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann

The Permanent Press, June 2011

 Alfredbuber

Publishers Weekly

Alfred Buber, the narrator of Schmahmann's (Empire Settings) second novel, is a man both prissy and sordid. He describes himself as portly, little, middle-aged, bald, with beady eyes, a big nose, and hairless legs. He's a partner in a stodgy Boston law firm and lives in the grand house he began building as a young lawyer. He's also old-fashioned, formal, dryly witty, and recognizes that his way of trying to fit into the world only serves to isolate him. His fetishistic attraction to Asian girls, which developed during his youth in Rhodesia, eventually leads him into a double life: he travels to Asia for sex with very young prostitutes. But at the Star of Love Bar, after watching public sexual encounters, then experiencing his own, matter-of-factly, as though "she were changing a bandage on my leg," Buber also experiences love, touched by the beautiful teenage girl, Nok, who he first sees paging a child's book, trying to learn English. Buber moves back and forth in time and place, to Boston, to Europe, to Bangkok, trying to figure out his life, wedded to both his personas, and as both his lives slowly unravel, he faces the consequence of his waffling. Schmahmann has captured desperation and love between unequals. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

Ah, the unreliable narrator! It drives some people to distraction but it's a literary device I love.

 In some cases it's subtle, as if the person speaking isn't that different from you or me. We each perceive things differently. Telling a story from our individual perspective is not a lie, nor is it delusional. It's point of view. Only when imagination veers wildly from reality does the unreliable narrator show his or her detachment from reality. It's kind of like when my kids tell me "everyone else has _____!" Fill in the blank with something expensive, like a laptop. Or a car. Or hair extensions.

So, how can we tell when a narrator is grossly misrepresenting the facts? A good writer shows us, that's how. He (in this case) describes the reactions of those around the narrator, which, in the case of the unreliable narrator, screams out, "This dude is nuts!"

Yes, the correct literary terminology includes the word "dude." If you hold a degree in English literature, as do I, you'll know. If not, you must go on trust.

Main character Alfred Buber is a well-to-do everyman. A middle-aged and paunchy attorney, he realizes despite all his success he's very lonely. He wonders if any woman could ever find him attractive, at this point in his life, and if he has any hope at all of finding love. For all his money all he has to show is a showcase of a home, empty save for himself and his help.

Because he is so rich and unattached, Buber can afford to travel anywhere he'd like. So he takes a trip to Thailand, where he meets a heart-achingly young prostitute named Nok. She's beautiful, frail and doesn't deserve to spend her life in a brothel. The minute he sees her he's smitten, deciding then and there his purpose in life is to use his fortune to rescue Nok from her own life. 

Nok, on the other hand, sees her life as inevitable. The daughter of a destitute farm family living in rural nowhere, it is her duty to come to the city and make money using all she has – her body – sending money back to her family to help support them. She's doing what poor young girls do, not feeling herself degraded by her life so much as useful to her family.

Eventually, after more trips back and forth, he decides he must marry Nok and bring her home to live in his empty mansion in Boston. But he also knows if he does everyone will think he's resorted to a mail-order bride, a young Asian woman who barely speaks English, is tiny and beautiful as a doll, and lives with him out of gratitude he's saved her and appreciation for his money. He's not so deluded he doesn't see reality, yet he's tortured. And Nok? She's extremely confused.

And life is about to get more convoluted for Buber. Much more.

Of course, Nok is Lolita, and Buber Humbert Humbert. She is child-like and waifish, he middle-aged and wealthy. It's a theme that's been done over and over. Still, Schmahmann manages to bring a fresh perspective to it, some quality it's hard to name, but one that appeals though I've read several Lolita-esque books of varying quality.

Buber is a laughable character, in a very dark way. I'm not one for seeing humor in situations in which a sad person humiliates himself, though many other reader/reviewers are, or at least express they are. To me that sort of thing isn't funny. I feel for Buber, wish him well and hope he find his heart's desire. Yes, he's a bit of a kook. He's unrealistic, but his heart is good. He's done what so many others have, put aside everything in life for his career. And now he's alone, realizing what he's missed.

This is a book that likely won't receive the recognition it deserves, getting lost in the shuffle with the big publishers, but I recommend it very highly. If you can get your  hands on it it's one terrific read that's stuck with me for months.

 

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Author Bio

David Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell Law School, and has studied in India and Israel and worked in Burma. His first novel, Empire Settings, received the John Gardner Book Award, and his publications include a short story in The Yale Review and articles on legal issues.

He practices law in Boston, and lives in Weston, Massachusetts.

More blog reviews:

The South End

Dactyl Review

 

Other novels:

Empire Settings: A Novel of South Africa

Ivory From Paradise

Nibble & Kuhn

 

 The Curfew by Jesse Ball

Vintage, 2011

 

Curfewball 

 

From a deluded middle-aged man to the terror of a father and his young daughter living in a police state. No good segue, save both books are masterful, literary in the purest sense of the word.

 

"I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty. Though violence may connect them, though pity, compassion, hope may  marry one thing to another, still all that is in process cannot be judged, and that which has passed has gone beyond judgment, which leaves us again, with lives and belongings, places, shuttling here and there, hapless, benighted, discordant."

– from The Curfew


Former violinist William Drysdale and his young daughter Molly live in an apartment in an unnamed city part of a police state. Theirs is a world of fear and uncertainty, the memory of how things used to be quickly fading, a new world order stamping out all that was in an attempt to control with an iron fist.  People are dying, disappearing. The sound of gunshots is becoming normal; dead people lie in the street until soldiers carry them away. People are afraid to look too long, to be too curious, lest the same fate befall them.

William's job is taking orders for tombstones, going from house to house. For each order he uses a brand new pencil, sharpening it himself. It's a quirk of his. The families tell him about the deceased and he helps them craft an epitaph so that it doesn't implicate the government or the way they actually died. Instead, he chooses a matter of fact statement from the details they give him.

For instance, this one for a child:

Lisa Epstein.

9 years, 24 days.

In our street by our house, it was almost evening.

 

His job is very busy. There is no lack of customers.

William's daughter Molly is electively mute, communicating by way of notes and hand signs, even at home with her father. William devises games, riddles actually, for Molly. They keep her mind sharp and give her something besides the world to focus on, making  the best of a horrific situation.

People disappear in this world, leaving no trace. Soldiers carry guns while the people cower in fear, save for a very small minority which has formed a resistance group, taking a very big risk with the hope of outwitting the regime. Among those in the resistance is an old friend of William's, one who saw William's wife, Louisa, being taken away and knows what happened to her. Meeting up with William, seemingly by chance, he invites him to his home to meet the others in the group. And if he will take a risk and join them that evening he can learn not only how he can help, but why his wife disappeared, as well. He also has something to give William, something once dear to him.

William knows what it would mean should he get caught violating curfew. He knows what it could mean for Molly, too, leaving her without either parent. But he also knows what it could mean for everyone if he's part of the solution, because he remembers how life used to be, how he had a wife and daughter, how he had been a violinist living happily in a free society.

 

"He should not go. He wouldn't. It was out of the question. But of course, of course, he must go.

Yes, there are times when something is asked of us, and we find we must do it. There is no calculation involved, no measure of the necessity of the thing itself, the action that must be performed. There is simply an acknowledgment that we will do the thing in question, and then the thing is done, often at considerable personal cost.

What goes into these decisions? What tiny factors, invisible, in the jutting edges of personality and circumstance, contribute to this inevitability?"


Dropping Molly off at the apartment of a neighbor he knows he can trust, he goes out into the night. Meanwhile, the older couple watching Molly introduce her to their handmade puppets, surreal dolls that appear so life-like it makes the reader's skin crawl. But not Molly's. She's fascinated. The old man performs a puppet show, then asks Molly to help write a script he'll perform for her. This occupies her for hours.

In the midst of a horrific world is a fairy story comprised of puppets and happenings so odd Molly is kept riveted, but never afraid for herself, only for her father. She knows, and she doesn't know what may befall him. The world is so confusing, especially to a child.  So she sits watching the increasingly life-like puppets, waiting for dawn.

The book is gorgeous, timeless. It makes you consider the horrors others have lived through, and how lucky we are to be free, without worry soldiers will burst through our doors, taking loved ones we'll never see again, never learning their fate. Young, sweet Molly typifies innocence lost, and her father the bravery of those who would fight to win back their homeland. The older couple abides, keeping to themselves in their darkened apartment, wisdom telling them this is where they're safest. Molly is a joy to them, a substitute grandchild. Keeping her occupied is their kindness to her, helping take her mind off what's going on outside their safe little nest.

Ball's prose is sparing, the dialogue kept minimal. It has a poetic quality, a beauty that belies the horror. Very highly recommended.

 

  Jesseball

 Jesse Ball

More blog reviews:

The Fiction Advocate

The Spiral

The Nervous Breakdown

 Other Novels:

Samedi the Deafness

The Way Through Doors

Poetry:

March Book

 The Village on Horseback: Prose and Verse 2003 – 2008