Saturday, July 31, 2010

Soup and Salad: Salinger's Face, What Ron Currie Jr. learned, Bookplates of the dead

On today's menu:

1.  J. D. Salinger has been unmasked!  Newsweek has a photo of the photo-reluctant author, taken in in 1968 when The Catcher in the Rye scribe was 49 years old.  And he looks....strikingly similar to the single image of the face most of us have been seeing for years--except with more lines and bags.  Salinger is sitting on the edge of a bed lacing up his left shoe, "ever so faintly" smiling, as Newsweek puts it.  The recluse is unguarded in that moment and appears to share a deep connection with whoever clicked the shutter.  What's even more interesting than The Face is the place which the candid snapshot reveals, Newsweek notes:
The intimacy of his setting--the milky tangle of used blankets and sheets--is offset by the spare thrift of his Cornish, N.H., bedroom, with its humble furnishings: small wastebasket, austere dresser. Bare, blank walls. Pack of smokes. But the most telling detail is on the door, at the left edge: a flash-enhanced glint on the room’s steely lock. It’s a reminder of its tenant’s unflinching mantra: keep out.
With Salinger's death, the high walls of privacy have started to crumble and soon we'll be watching a documentary (Salinger) and reading an 800-page biography (The Private War of J. D. Salinger) written by Shane Salerno and David Shields.  What would J. D. think of all this?  Perhaps we need to go back to those famous opening lines of Holden Caulfield:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all--I'm not saying that--but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

2.  At The Huffington Post, Ron Currie Jr. tells us what he learned while writing Everything Matters!  Among other things:
I learned pretty early when I was writing the book that my father was dying. For a while after that I stopped working, more or less. Instead of writing I drove around a lot, smoking and listening to music and feeling bad for myself. I spent a lot of time fishing on the Sebasticook River, where my father took me and my brothers when we were kids, to the spot just below the dam where the big boulder juts up out of the water and there are plenty of pools the bass like to hide in. You know the spot, or a spot like it? Yeah. And then one day a few months before my father died, I snagged an eager smallmouth in the eye with a treble hook. There's no gentle way to remove a barbed hook from an eye, but I tried. And I realized that if this fish could scream it would, but instead all it did was gape, and I released it into back into the river, hurting and silent and probably bound to die. And after that I lost the stomach for fishing, and have hardly done it since.
 Everything Matters! remains on my increasingly-long list of books I want to read before the end of the year.

3. Dark Roasted Blend, which is dedicated to "Weird and Wonderful Things," has a nice gallery of bookplates from celebrities and authors.  Bookplates are, of course, one of the prettier ways to deface and devalue books.  They're those "ex-libris" stickers you see in the first pages of a book, personal labels that shout: "Hey, this book is mine and if you're reading it and I didn't cheerfully loan it to you, then you better bring it back right goddamn now....unless, of course, you are someone in the future who picked up the book at a flea market long after I'm dead, in which case, of course you're welcome to keep the book--just don't forget it was once my personal property, pal."  (That's the very liberal translation of "ex-libris," otherwise known as "from the library of").  Dark Roasted Blend has bookplates from the libraries of Charles de Gaulle, George Washington, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Jack Dempsey, Greta Garbo and many others.  Purty stuff.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Freebie: Penguin's 75th Anniversary

At some point in our reading lives, all of us have held a Penguin.  (And if you haven't, then you're really missing out on the world's finest literature.)  What began as the brainchild of Allen Lane in 1935 as a way to distribute quality paperbacks at a price cheaper than buying a pack of cigarettes, soon exploded into a publishing phenomenon.

From the publisher's website:
Simply designed with broad bands of color (orange for general fiction, green for crime fiction, dark blue for biographies), and using the font Gill Sans-Serif, the original ten books immediately established themselves within the history of design.  Skeptics dismissed Lane's idea as imprudent and crazy, but by March 1936 — ten months after the company's launch — one million Penguin books had been printed.  Within a year Penguin had sold 3 million paperbacks.  By April 1938 the first 140 titles had been published, as well as 30 Pelicans, 18 of the Shakespeare series, and one Penguin Special.  The skeptics were proved wrong and a new, innovative publishing model was launched into the world.

Personally speaking, Penguins have formed the foundation of my classics reading experience--starting in college with a copy of Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son (whose orange spine now has scoliosis from multiple reads) and continuing on through today where, in my basement library, I have an entire collection of nearly 150 black-band Penguin Classics.  Simply put, they are the most exciting way to discover (and re-discover) the classics.  A world without Penguins would be a very bleak landscape indeed.

In honor of the publisher's 75th Anniversary, I am teaming up with Penguin to give away one copy of any title from this list of 75 books (please note: the contest referred to on that webpage was sponsored by Penguin and has now closed; but you can still choose one of the 75 for my contest).

All you have to do is e-mail me the title and author of one of the Original 10 Penguins published in 1935.  You'll have to poke around the Penguin anniversary site a little bit, but the answer shouldn't be hard to find.

Click here to e-mail me your answer

Please include your name and your choice from the list of 75 titles.  If you're the winner, I'll contact you for the mailing address to where you'd like us to send the book.  One entry per person.

The contest closes at midnight on Aug. 5, at which time I will place all the correct respondents in a hat and draw the winning name.  I'll announce the winner on Aug. 6.

Good luck and happy Penguining!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More Pretty Young Things

As I mentioned earlier, The New Yorker has released its list of "20 Under 40" promising fiction writers to predictable hue and cry. Since I'm on the far side of 40 and the shy side of 50, I'm trying not to take this as a personal affront (he says, shaking his fist at the Manhattan skyscraper, spitting on the sidewalk, and yelling uselessly up to the 15th Floor, "You haven't heard the last of me yet, New Yorker!").

I bought the "20 Under 40" issue and spent the better part of a month reading the stories from "writers I should be watching."  Excuse me while I stifle a yawn and check to see if my socks are still on (Yep).  The stories aren't bad (in the way a tuna-fish sandwich left out in the sun all afternoon is said to be bad), but they also aren't great (as a Five Guys double-patty cheeseburger with jalapenos and mayo is great--nay, tongue-curlingly great!).  I've seen more electricity at a Luddite Convention.

But The New Yorker list is beneficial if for nothing else than to spark another of those one-upping debates the lit-blogging community loves so well.  "You think '20 Under 40' is so great?  Well, I've got the '10 Over 80' list right here, buddy!"  I could fill an entire blog post with nothing but hyperlinks directing you to lists of the over-looked and under-appreciated writers, but here are two of them which have piqued my interest:  for the British perspective, check out The Telegraph's 20 Under 40 list; for the indie-publishing perspective, go to The Emerging Writers Network's 20 Writers to Watch list (many, many unfamiliar writers on there I need to check out!).

As for my list?  Previously, I'd trumpeted 9 under 40, but now I've reconsidered and expanded my choices.  Taking the liberty of adding a decade to The New Yorker list to include my fellow fortysomethings, here are my 20 personal favorites, keeping in mind there are plenty of other very good writers (or so I've heard) whose works I've never read--including Dave Eggers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Here's my list, in no particular order:

Chris Ware
I've read my fair share of graphic novels (though less than I should), and Ware is still the one who touches me deepest.  I haven't read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which has piled up the accolades, but for my money nothing can beat Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth for sheer beautiful misery.  Published in 2000, one year before our national tragedy, it chronicled the awkward, lonely life of the titular loser who must deal with father issues in the bleak midwinter of his life.  Imagine Richard Yates' characters trapped in the panels of a comic strip and you'll have some inkling about the depth of wallow in Jimmy Corrigan.

Laura van den Berg
I've had my eye on van den Berg for more than two years now, ever since I read the issue of One Story featuring the title story from her debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, about a teenage girl accompanying her scientist mother on a trip to Madagascar to study lemurs. I haven't had the chance to read the rest of the stories in this new collection, but the jacket copy at publisher Dzanc Books' website hints at the odd and beautiful ways that van den Berg uses myth and humor to reveal the human condition: A failed actress takes a job as a Bigfoot impersonator.  A botanist seeking a rare flower crosses paths with a group of men hunting the Loch Ness Monster.  A disillusioned missionary in Africa grapples with grief and a growing obsession with a creature rumored to live in the forests of the Congo.

C. J. Box
I don't read a lot of contemporary mysteries.  I mostly prefer the locked-room puzzles of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout.  But when I do reach for murder and mayhem, one of the first places I go is Box's Joe Pickett mysteries, books which combine my love for the Rocky Mountain west, and the morbid beauty of blood-spatter on snow.  Pickett is a Wyoming game warden whose cases usually revolve around the uneasy intersection between man and nature--elk poachers gone awry, kidnappers retreating from society, etc.  He is one of the most interesting "detectives" working in fiction these days.  I especially like Box's stories for their depth, complexity, and genuinely-earned emotional pitch.  Click here to read my review of Nowhere to Run .

Joe Hill
To paraphrase Willie Nelson, the guy can scare the paint off a trailer hitch with his ghost stories.  Sure, as the son of horrormeister Stephen King, Hill comes by his talent honestly.  But swing a cat in a crowded room and you'll hit plenty of talentless offspring of artists (Drew Barrymore, anyone?).  Hill creeps under the skin quietly and unforgettably, especially in the short stories of 20th-Century Ghosts.  Hill makes horror feel as fresh as the day his father published 'Salem's Lot.  In 20th-Century Ghosts, the frights come by way of a haunted movie theater, a museum which collects the "last breath" of famous people and "Pop Art," a sad, bizarre tale of an inflatable boy.

Amanda Eyre Ward
Some bookstores might shelve Ward with the Picoults and Kinsellas and Weiners in the ill-named "Chick Lit" section, but Ward has far broader appeal and, frankly, more smarts than the average writer of "women's fiction."  I also love Ward's sure-footed, off-handed way with humor.  She excels at the self-deprecating zinger, even in stories about Death Row, post-9/11 terrorism, and miscarriage.  Among other things, she knows how to open a short story with unforgettable sentences--as in the one from "Motherhood and Terrorism":  Lola thought the baby shower would be canceled due to the beheading, but she was wrong. I could go on and on about the merits and pleasures of Amanda Eyre Ward, but perhaps you should just read my reviews here and here of her books Sleep Toward Heaven and Love Stories in This Town.  If you do nothing else this week, hunt down the latter collection and read her classic story of a masturbator on the loose in the Butte Public Library ("Butte as in Beautiful").

Kevin Brockmeier
With his fabulist tales of spirituality and magical realism, Brockmeier comes close to being our American Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  In my review of The View from the Seventh Layer, I wrote:  In his 2006 novel, The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier gave readers a dazzling vision of an afterlife where residents of a city are kept "alive" only as long as someone back on earth remembered them.  In his new collection of short stories, Brockmeier again proves to have a boundless imagination when writing about matters of the spirit.  He takes readers on a series of magical mystery tours through worlds that only resemble ours on the surface; scratch deeper, and you'll find a place that's a delirious mix of science fiction and religion.  It's no accident that some of these stories are labeled "fables."  Brockmeier's tales are surprising, meaningful, and sentimental in all the right places.  I can't wait to read what he writes next.

John Brandon
Brandon's first novel, Arkansas, flew under the radar two years ago, and here's hoping his newest one, Citrus County, gains elevation and starts showing up as a major blip on reader radars everywhere.  Here's what I had to say about Arkansas (in a mini-review at January Magazine) when it was first released:  Drug-running gangsters are at the heart of Arkansas, John Brandon’s debut novel from McSweeney’s Books; however, as the title reminds us, the shady business is carried out not in Harlem, Miami or Vegas but the rural Southeast.  This allows Brandon to indulge in the kind of quirky writing that distinguishes Southern grit-lit and, true to its McSweeney’s roots, this neo-noir novel is cynical and hip.  Kyle Ribb and Swin Ruiz are petty criminals who, for lack of anything better to do, start working for a black-marketeer named Frog in the land of trailer parks and deep-fried breakfasts.  The two run packets from an Arkansas state park where they have phony cover jobs as assistant park rangers.  Brandon keeps the pace brisk and tense.  The violence, when it comes, surfaces quickly, snaps at us in the space of a paragraph, then recedes just as fast.

Kyle Minor
Gritty, unsparing, and wincingly funny, Minor goes places with his stories where you might think twice about setting foot.  Click here to read one of his short stories, "The Truth and All Its Ugly;" then, after you've picked your teeth up off the floor and shoved them back into your bleeding gums, check out his debut collection In the Devil's Territory (also from Dzanc Books).  Want more encouragement?  Here's the first line of the first story in that book:  I hate Christmas, but this year is different because there is a small chance my wife will die and take our unborn child with her.

Rebecca Barry
I totally dug Barry's debut short story collection Later, at the Bar.  I said it was "inspiring fiction which just happens to be set in a room filled with smoke, sad songs and slurred words."  That book came out in 2007.  I've been keeping my eyes peeled (ouch!) for more Barry to hit the bookstores.  However, there's been nothing but crickets since then.  Ms. Barry, when are you coming back?

Adam Braver
It's a tricky thing to make historical fiction fresh without slopping into the pedantically dull or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, bizarre-for-the-sake-of-bizarre.  Braver's first book, Mr. Lincoln's Wars made me look at five-dollar bills in a whole new light.  The "novel" shone a kleig light on Honest Abe's complex inner life from thirteen different perspectives in as many short stories.  The tales of Lincoln were just varied enough to be "fresh" and were technically stunning in their execution.  His subsquent books have done the same literary psychoanalysis on Jackie Kennedy and Sarah Bernhardt.

Michael Chabon
Maybe it's unfair to give a literary titan like Chabon a slot on a list filled with under-known and over-looked writers, but the simple fact remains that Chabon is under 50 and he is one of the best damned American writers in that age group.  'Nuff said?  I think so.  For more of my love for MC's work, you can check out my reviews here, and there, and here again.

Roy Kesey
Dzanc Books strikes again!  Three years ago, Kesey's short story collection All Over was the first book to roll off their presses.  It's been nothing but reams of excellent literature ever since.  I waxed rhapsodic about Kesey's talents for January Magazine back then.  Here's part of what I said:  In these 19 stories, Kesey takes the reader on a tour of post-modern fiction that is at once bizarre and completely familiar.  Here you'll meet a man named Martin who thinks he's a guitar string, honeymooners who are threatened by llamas, a homeless couple who initially thrive during a garbage strike, and two girls who build a castle -- complete with crenellated parapets -- out of the ingredients at a Pizza Hut salad bar.  His story "Wait," about an airport boarding lounge from Hell, is an out-and-out masterpiece.  It's a story that starts out in recognizable territory, then slides into the Twilight Zone, and ends on something out of Ray Bradbury, except bleaker and weirder.

Junot Diaz
I missed the buzz-and-hype for Diaz's award-winning debut collection Drown.  But I was fully on board when, eleven years later, he delivered unto the world The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  In my review of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel for January Magazine, I wrote:  Meet Oscar de Leon, dubbed “Oscar Wao” by bullies who liken him to the foppish Oscar Wilde.  Our Oscar is a fat, virginal Dominican-American teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunchbox to school, spends hours painting his Dungeons and Dragons miniatures, and who knows “more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee.”  If Nerd was a country, Oscar would be its undisputed king.  Oscar is the kind of kid we would avoid on the subway -- sweaty, mumbles to himself, inevitably invades personal space, probably has bad breath.   In Junot Diaz' debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, Oscar is the flame and we are the moths.  An earnestly open-hearted protagonist, he draws us to him until we incinerate in the intensity of his character.

Sherman Alexie
On the page (as well as in person), Sherman Alexie pops and sizzles and does double-cartwheel flips with language.  I haven't read everything of his (Indian Killer and Flight remain untouched), but what I have read, I've really, really liked.  The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is required reading if you want to know the chemistry for a story fueled by jet-propulsion sentences.  But I also pretty-much liked his other collection Ten Little Indians.  I once wrote (and still stand by my words):  If there's a bone in Sherman Alexie's body that isn't funny, I'd like to know where it is.   The left metatarsal, perhaps; or maybe the coccyx...Take a look at the author photo on the back of his latest book, Ten Little Indians, and you'll see what I mean.   His eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth's wide open in mid-guffaw; the teeth practically leap off the dustjacket.   That laughter often leaps right back onto the page.   Alexie's sentences are jazzed with jokes, the paragraphs pop with the pleasure of puns.

Jhumpa Lahiri
When I first read Lahiri's collection Interpreter of Maladies, it had as big an impression on my writer's psyche as anything I'd read since Flannery O'Connor.  Ten years ago, I wrote in a review that "This is the kind of prose that turns aspiring writers several shades of green in the time it takes them to read one paragraph."  Though that early review of mine slops over the rim of the cup with googly-eyed praise, I still count Lahiri as one of the best stylists around.

Benjamin Percy
Okay, I'm going to be perfectly honest here (as opposed to the imperfect honesty scattered throughout the rest of this blog post):  I have not actually read a complete work of fiction by Benjamin Percy.  However, I'm including him on this list because: a) I read the first three pages of his forthcoming novel The Wilding and the ONLY reason I put it aside was because I'm in the midst of reading two other books and I want to be able to devote my complete attention to the story of three generations of flawed males bonding and breaking in the Oregon wilderness; b) those three pages were pretty fucking good; c)  I like elk and Percy's debut collection was called The Language of Elk; and d) I've been told by several people whose opinion I trust that I will love Percy.  I've been kicking myself from here to Regretsville for not reading Refresh, Refresh when it came out a couple of years ago.  To put it bluntly, Benjamin Percy is the best writer I haven't read....yet.

Josh Weil
I've raved elsewhere on this site about the excellence of Josh Weil's collection of three novellas, The New Valley.  If you saw that blog post and haven't yet started reading those three stories about misfits in rural Virginia struggling with loneliness, depression, and turbulent romance...well then, shame on you.  Why am I even shouting into the blog-o-sphere if you won't take my advice when I dispense it?

David Foster Wallace
Technically speaking, since he's dead, DFW isn't a "writer to watch," but when I sat and pondered excellence in fiction writing, then got up out of my chair and scanned the 5,000-plus works of fiction on my bookshelf, and then started winnowing the list and narrowing my choices, I couldn't not include the genius who breathed new breath into the art of the footnote.  The first thing I ever read by Wallace was the 1996 "non-fiction" essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (then titled "Shipping Out") in Harper's Magazine.  I started choking with laughter and the ONLY reason I'm still here today writing to you is because a co-worker knew the Heimlich maneuver.  Later, when I was in the midst of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, more strenuous methods had to be applied in order to bring me back from the dead.  I'm still pissed that Wallace hung himself in 2008 when he was 46.  He robbed us of his greatness.  What remains, however, we must cherish.

Gary Shteyngart
His contribution to the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" issue was easily the best story in those pages.  It's an excerpt from his newest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which is a weird and wonderful and hilarious tale of a dystopian future.  Based on that story alone, I really need to check out Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook.  I may need to have the cardiac paddles within easy reach.  In his Washington Post review of Super Sad True Love Story, Ron Charles writes, Gary Shteyngart has seen the future, and it has no room for him -- or any of us. His new novel, a slit-your-wrist satire illuminated by the author's absurd wit, follows today's most ominous trend lines past Twitter and Facebook addiction to a post-literate, consumption-crazed America that abhors books, newspapers and even conversation.  "In other words," Shteyngart notes, "next Tuesday."  This zany Russian immigrant loops the comedy of Woody Allen's "Sleeper" through the grim insights of George Orwell's "1984" to produce a "Super Sad True Love Story" that exposes the moral bankruptcy of our techno-lust.  He had me at "slit-your-wrist."

Justin Cronin
Yes, I'm jumping on The Passage bandwagon....but what an exhilarating ride that bandwagon is giving!  I'm a little more than halfway through the apocalpytic-vampire-child savior novel, but I can tell already it's going to be one of my favorites for this year.  Cronin has a beautiful way with horror.  Take for instance, these sentences about a vampire attack:  Anthony fell on him swiftly, from above.  A scream and then the man was silent in wet pieces on the floor.  The beautiful warmth of blood!  I'll probably post more about The Passage after I finish it, but for now let me just close with this unpardonable pun:  it's the kind of novel that sinks its teeth into you and never lets go.

So, there you have it: my 20 picks.  What are yours?  Feel free to post them in the comments section.