Posts Tagged ‘Books’
The thin house–a house four feet wide and occupying a space between two buildings in Warsaw–isn’t a likely candidate to entertain the guests who show up unexpectedly and demand a story from the author on the spot in the title story of Etgar Keret’s latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock On the Door. While it would not be able to hold the action of the piece, it does explain the style of the Israeli author’s storytelling: as Steven Kurutz of The New York Times writes, the thin house, built with Keret in mind, is “small but complete.” There are a total of thirty-six stories contained within the 188 pages of the book, an average of five pages per story, though as we know averages work, many come in much shorter, with some barely stretching over one page. In these brief pieces, Keret packs in whole worlds.
After missing Junot Diaz’s performance at Book Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, I consoled myself by reflecting on his new short story collection. Before I cracked the spine, the odds were long that Diaz could meet the high standard of his debut collection Drown, or his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or his recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which even super fans conceded was belated and perhaps gratuitous. And after being inspired by Drown to study fiction writing in graduate school, teaching the book for years to high school and college students in literature and creative writing classes, and raving about Diaz to anyone who would listen, the new book felt like a referendum on my credibility as a writer, teacher, and human being. I hesitated for several weeks before buying the book, rationalizing that if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Fortunately, Diaz delivered. Like its predecessors, This is How You Lose Her is technically dazzling, culturally challenging, and emotionally devastating. Line by line, page by page, story by story, it is a book that breaks and mends your heart.
Junot Diaz is perhaps the best fiction writer in America, having won the hearts and minds of readers over nearly two decades with his three books: the short story collection Drown, the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and his new story collection This is How You Lose Her, a series of linked short stories, mostly about infidelity, mostly narrated by Diaz’s ghetto geek alter ego Yunior, and set in the three places the author has called home: the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Boston. The book features Diaz’s now signature style of deceptively simple prose that mixes lofty language and street talk, English and Spanish, and high and low culture. As if all that weren’t enough, Diaz recently won a MacArthur Foundation Award, netting him half a million dollars and the label of genius.
On Tuesday night, Diaz regaled a packed house at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, one of the city’s finest independent bookstores. Rather than opening with a reading, he began by taking questions from the audience. Writer, librarian, and Diaz fan Krissa Corbett Cavouras was on hand to record the dialogue. Disclaimer: the following was transcribed on a smartphone, may contain slight inaccuracies, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Also, there are a lot of swear words.
On creative writing programs (MFAs):
“Creative writing programs are the best way to get young people into a hundred thousand dollars of debt. I mean, is there any connection between the proliferation of creative writing programs and the collapse of people actually reading any of these books, and the collapse of bookstores? And how about what this does, it creates one-hit novelists, where you get one shot against the bottom line. You don’t get a second chance.”
“Creative writing programs have become the lottery machine for the intellectual set. Young writers should wait until, I don’t know, 27? What’s the hurry? Deep down in your heart if you’re serious about being artists, it doesn’t matter if the work comes early or late. It’s the ones who are in a rush who aren’t actually artists; they just want approval.”
“Do all the wrong things, make a ton of mistakes in your life; you’ll find that you actually bring news from the world to your art. Don’t graduate from college and go straight to an MFA. It’s a pyramid scheme and it doesn’t necessarily improve your art.”
Telegraph Avenue connects Oakland and Berkeley, two cities whose historically different racial compositions have earned them separate boilerplate reputations in the mind of outsiders: Oakland, gritty, home of the Raiders, music Mecca, melting pot; Berkeley, local, micro-climate-gifted, capital of yuppie fantasyland. Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, is set against and among such clichés as it tells of two couples, one black and one white, for whom the eponymous avenue and environs are everything.
Issues of race shot through the twin lenses of pop-culture and politics are all over Telegraph Avenue. The Black Panthers and Huey Newton play a part, as do Kung-Fu, big old American cars, and Pam Grier. There’s funk, soul, R&B, and the real meaning behind “A Love Supreme.” Chabon runs down the history of black music in the East Bay and how the first black workers came to Oakland. Nearly an entire funeral eulogy is given to expounding upon what Creole signifies. There’s a white lawyer desperate to sound “black,” and a white teenager who thinks he knows what the inside of his black friend’s house will look like before entering. And we get a black midwife’s vow to become a doctor so “then when I reach out to a black woman while she’s having a baby, maybe then she’s going to reach back.” Her white business partner, “the Alice Waters of midwives,” doesn’t understand the urgency behind the promise.
David Byrne’s new manifesto slash memoir, How Music Works, has been written many times before. Ethnomusicologists and philosophers, from Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin to David Suisman, have chronicled the historical shift from classical to popular music, lamenting it, praising it, and/or evaluating the societal changes brought about by it and its corresponding technology. Byrne’s book, which illustrates the history of analog and digital recording, narrates the advent of the music industry, and claims to describe how to create a music scene or subculture offers almost nothing new. One could learn a similar amount about modern musical historical shifts through a single listen of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” So what gives David Byrne the right to write?
Zadie Smith’s writing has certainly changed in the 12 years since her debut novel White Teeth. She takes more risks and has become more obscure, placing more weight on the shoulders of the reader to interpret her meaning. While her style may be off-putting to some, it does allow her to creatively describe, say, the placement of teeth and fillings in one character’s mouth with a literary graphic.
In her new novel NW, Smith explores the London neighborhood through the eyes of best friends Leah and Keisha over the course of 35 years. Despite how much her neighborhood has fallen on hard times, Leah still feels sympathetic to those that dwell there, and relates to them as well. They are of the generation that grew up without global-minimizing connective technology, but eventually grew into it. Their first memories are of a limited location: Northwest London and the subtle differences between the people, streets, and homes that exist therein. They knew where their friends were without Twitter and how to get somewhere without Google Maps. Which is not to say they don’t embrace social media when they grow up. Who knew ChatRoulette could be referenced in literature?). So how does one stay grounded in the physical realm while steadily adapting to an abstract one?
Those intrepid bookies at Ladbrokes, the venerable British oddsmakers, recently released the first list of favorites for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, to no one’s surprise, Japanese author Haruki Murakami heads up the list at 7/1 odds. Perhaps more surprising is the inclusion of Bob Dylan on the list, this week in second at 10/1 and surging. (Those pranksters even threw in E.L. James of 50 Shades of Gray fame at 500/1 just in case you feel like throwing away your money.)
Figuring out what the Nobel Committee is thinking is always a bit of a challenge and I don’t envy the Ladbrokes handicappers. Anyone remember Dario Fo? He won in 1997, although for the life of me I can’t think of one of his books.. Equally perplexing to many, especially those of us in the U.S., were the recent choices of Herta Müller in 2009 and J.M.G. Le Clezio in 2008–not to mention last year’s winner, the rather obscure Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
Now it’s all well and good that the Nobel Committee wants to broaden the literary horizons of the Anglophone world, but Tranströmer? Really? It’s hard to think that John Updike, or for that matter Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy, don’t have a more worthy body of work. We get it, Horace Engdahl! Engdahl of course was the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who in 2008 said “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
I’ve lived in Germany and France, and let me tell you: more Germans and French have read, not to mention heard about, Updike than Tranströmer. But at least there’s still time for Roth and McCarthy (both at 16/1 odds), the two highest American authors on the list if you don’t count Dylan (and I don’t).
Of course, the Academy has a history of denying the Prize to such screamingly obvious authors as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, while rewarding their forgettable contemporaries Karl Adolf Gjelllup, Ivan Bunin, and Saint-John Perse (yes, that’s his real name). I mean come on: Joyce! Given this, it’s hard sometimes to remember why we care about the Nobel at all. Or as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an article in last year’s Salon, “America wonders how you say ‘clueless’ in Swedish.”
Last year, the smart money assumed that a poet would win, given that 1996 was the last time a pure poet (Wisława Szymborska) won. The Syrian poet Adonis (sometimes spelled ‘Adunis’) was briefly the favorite, and other poets such as the South Korean Ko Un, and Australian Les Murray all were up there at the end. In fact, Tranströmer suddenly surged in the betting at the very last minute last year, closing at 4/6 odds: it’s a good bet (pun intended) that word of the decision leaked out. If I were on the Committee, I’d have seen who of my fellow colleagues was suddenly driving a new car that year.
Murakami aside, 2012 might just be the year for Africa or the Middle East, Adonis and Israeli author Amoz Oz are in the thick of it, followed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. Somewhat surprisingly, Thiong’o (also known as James Ngugi) has led the better known (at least in the U.S.) Chinua Achebe, but this year they’re both given 20/1 odds, at least for now. The last African writer to win was Coetzee in 2003 and before that Nadine Gordimer in 1991, but it would be nice to see a non-white, non-South African, win.
Personally, I’m rooting for either Murakami or Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom. Murakami has been at various points in the past years the odds-on favorite, but according to the rumors, he’s considered a little too popular (whatever that means) by the judges. We’ll see if the wider release this year of IQ84 helps or hurts his chances.
Nooteboom (Roads to Santiago, The Following Story) is probably unknown to many readers, but he’s one of the best Dutch writers around, especially after that Harry Mulisch (Discovery of Heaven) passed away this year. And, perhaps surprisingly, no Dutch author has ever won. I don’t think he’ll win, unfortunately: ironically, he’s neither quite obscure enough to shock Americans, nor famous enough (ike a Vargas Llosa. Still, a Netherlandophile like myself can dream.
Paul Houseman is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His essay Ugly Guys Try Harder: Why Not to Date a German Nurse was published in Frontier Pscyhiatrist in July 2011. His work has also been featured in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Smew, and on his mom’s refrigerator.