30 September 2009

Up at The Millions today, I’ve offered my own Top Five  works of fiction since 2000 (none of my selections made The Millions Top 20 Best Fiction of the Millennium list last week).  And I’ve sung the praises of my #6, The Tutor of History, by Nepali novelist Manjushree Thapa.

It’s a book review “sort of,” because it’s also something of a compare-contrast exercise, looking also at three other novels I read recently: Ali Smith‘s The Accidental, Rachel Kushner‘s Telex From Cuba, and Lily Tuck‘s The News From Paraguay (all, incidentally, major award-winners).

I seem to have taken up the cause of under-sung novels, particularly ones that have significant readership outside of the U.S. but are little known here.   Tutor falls into that category.  Later this week, a review I wrote of Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany‘s debut, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, will appear at The Second Pass.

29 September 2009

Swinging back to the literary from the political — though a gentle half-arc swing — I’m excited about Jimmy Carter‘s forthcoming White House diaries, which will be released in October 2010 from Farrar Strauss & Giroux.  Read more about it here.

If you haven’t read any of Carter’s numerous books, I’d recommend his memoir, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, which gave me such a strong sense of what has shaped his values and politics over his lifetime.  Growing up on a farm in the American south on the heels of the Depression, Carter seems to have absorbed the core of his life lessons during those years–which I found both fascinating and heartening.

28 September 2009

A little detour into global affairs today…

I’ve got Afghanistan on the brain, ever since David Brooks wrote in his NY Times Op-Ed piece last week that “historical evidence suggests that…middling strategies just create a situation in which you have enough forces to assume responsibility for a conflict, but not enough to prevail.”  In other words, it’s “all in or all out” — which, in my mind, puts genuine leadership at odds with voter impatience.  If it happens that troop increase and long-term commitment to the Af-Pak War is what’s required, then the Obama presidency, I fear, is at high risk.  It’s aggravating — that the “American people” (whoever that may be) want to be safe from terrorism, but will vote out any political leader who asks for patience and sacrifice to that end.

If it happens that the best course is to pull out, then cries of “broken campaign promises” will be the President’s other potential downfall.

I appreciated Frank Rich‘s piece in the NY Times this past Sunday, in which he exhorted the President to do what he needs to do, regardless of what he said 18 months ago on the campaign trail.

Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now. Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” circumstances have since changed…. [   ] it’s up to the president to decide what he thinks is right for the country’s security, the politics be damned. That he has temporarily pressed the pause button to think it through while others, including some of his own generals, try to lock him in is not a sign of indecisiveness but of confidence and strength.

I’m not sure why mind-changing is considered a sign of weakness or dishonesty in politics.  As if mindless consistency, or any sort of consistency, were an ultimate sign of character. The world changes so quickly these days, faster than Internet media can even keep up.  Why wouldn’t contradiction–saying one thing today, another thing tomorrow–be understood as the way we live now?  It seems to me that the only constant we have anymore is change.

26 September 2009

This statement by John Grisham in the Telegraph last week about his approach to writing makes me realize just how unproductive and illogical it is to make comparisons between or generate debates about the relative value of Grishamesque/Dan Brown thrillers and literary novels that are driven by elements other than pure suspense:

“I know that what I do is not literature… For me, the essential component of fiction is plot. My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible. If I want to achieve that, I can’t allow myself the luxury of distracting him. I have to keep him hanging on and the only way to do it is by using the weapons of suspense. There is no other way. If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people’s character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.”

It’s not even like apples and oranges; it’s like apples and… artichokes? Onions?  I don’t even know.

24 September 2009

Stephen Elliott, author of the recently released The Adderall Diaries, and founding editor of The Rumpus, is “not like God.”  But he’s been doing interviews recently, like this one at SMITH mag.  There’s something in his voice that always arrests me, something in the easy movement between hardness and softness.

It’s a common misperception that for some reason we should be telling stories about other people instead of ourselves. It’s completely wrong because it overlooks the most important person, the reader. Writing a book without accessing your experiences is like building a house without a hammer. The person living in the house doesn’t care whether or not you used a hammer. She only cares if the roof leaks. The book is no more or less valuable because the writer is present within the text. It’s a false concern. It’s like when we were adolescents and we couldn’t wait to denounce our favorite band. It’s not really about anything. It’s just bitter cynicism. And it’s irrelevant…

You can almost feel that the reader is foremost for him even as he answers interview questions, like he’s cutting straight through the main purpose of an interview, i.e. to promote his book, to connect with the reader — let’s just be real, I always feel him saying in the subtext.  Like, what else is there? Which of course is the best way to sell books, i.e. connecting in that real way with readers.  It’s a fascinating sort of loop, if you’re someone who pays attention to these kinds of things, i.e. how authors get involved in the promotion of their own work; and Elliott seems to do it effortlessly (although, that’s the other loop — the appearance of effortlessness which I’m guessing requires quite a bit of effort).

[What would you like to tell your happy friends at SMITH Mag?]

That I love you. That you should write for yourself. That the rewards of writing are not material. That you need a through line in your lives. You can’t just go from project to project, from book to mountain. You have to have community, continuity, rituals that keep you even as you change.

This struck me, too: “Some people read to escape; I read to connect.”  This seems to me a rather radical, and lucid, statement, simple as it is — in the wake of Dan Brown‘s new blockbuster release.

Elliott writes at length here about his writer’s journey (i.e. his life journey). “Connect” seems the right word for everything he’s trying to do in his life; keeping the writing and the editing and the promoting as real and as grounded as possible; living with and through depression and financial challenges and addiction while continuing to find genuine joy and focus in reading and writing.  With the critical success of The Adderall Diaries, his promotional savvy, the rising popularity of The Rumpus… I begin to worry a little.  About this writer I know not at all, except through these interviews and personal essays.  If the movie deal comes next, and lots of speaking engagements, and an offer to teach full-time at Prestigious U.; I don’t know…

I worry, Stephen Elliott.  About how you will navigate all this success, as you become a literary commodity; which can be so disconnecting.  But don’t get me wrong: I’m rooting for you.

22 September 2009

I’d been paring down on print periodicals, mostly for financial reasons; but then NPR was offering a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly for its membership premium, and I couldn’t resist.

Some absorbing articles in the September issue:

On Quentin Tarantino‘s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and why it’s high time a Gentile made a Holocaust revenge film (interview by Jeffrey Goldberg)

Caitlin Flanagan‘s (author of To Hell With All That) impassioned ode to Elizabeth Edwards (and evisceration of  Rielle Hunter, via Helen Gurley Brown)

A painful, illuminating, exasperating article by David Goldhill on the problems beneath the problems of the health care system, from the perspective of a free-market capitalist

I found each of these articles upsetting and frustrating, along with challenging and educational.  What more can you ask for…

21 September 2009

Check out the Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far) Top 20 at The Millions this week.  Panelists included: