Sometimes I worry that there's something recursive—or even, yes, vaguely masturbatory—about reading books about books. But I love them; I read them co...moreSometimes I worry that there's something recursive—or even, yes, vaguely masturbatory—about reading books about books. But I love them; I read them constantly; I may have what you'd call a bit of a problem. Perhaps the reason I can't seem to let a literary satire or reader's memoir pass me by is that I know from the start that—to very loosely paraphrase Woody Allen—I'll be reading a book about a subject I love: books.
Last year it was Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist that earned my ardor. The target of Hely's affectionate skewering are the "literary" blockbusters that tend to cling like limpets to the top of The New York Times' bestseller list. As part of a get-rich-quick/spurned-lover's-revenge scheme, Hely's protagonist devises a formula for bestsellerdom and swiftly hammers out his literary masterpiece, The Tornado Ashes Club. Yes, that title alone should be enough to do it: I'll pause for a moment here to let your snort and cringe and remember your book club's worst excesses.
Fortunately, those past mistakes can be remedied by Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, which has a bit of old school adventure and a dash of film noir thrown in with its playful poking at the rather ripe target of memoirs. Ian Minot, a sad-sack, down-on-his-luck barista—a.k.a, an unpublished writer—finds himself embroiled in scheme (those pesky buggers are everywhere!) to rewrite a stranger's failed novel as a TRUE STORY starring none other than Ian Minot. When this exciting and heartwarming tale lands on the bestseller lists, Ian, the plan goes, will then reveal that it was all fake--thus, says his new benefactor, humiliating the publishing executives who did them both wrong. Sounds foolproof, right?
Of course things get completely out of control, in an enjoyable madcap Hitchcockian style. But what really made me stop and savor The Thieves of Manhattan—and How I Became a Famous Novelist, as well—were the examinations of the creative urge and the question of how to honestly express oneself in a commercial world, artfully sprinkled amongst the shenanigans. A satire that isn't entirely cynical—that seems as rare and delicate a creature as a memoir that really is entirely true.
So, fine. In the spirit of all the honesty we're cultivating here, I'll admit: I did not "stop and savor" The Thieves of Manhattan at all. I raced through it in less than a day. Like a certain type of lie, leaping off the tongue, it wasn't something I could help. It felt too damn good.
[Honest confession No. 2: Effusive review + moderate rating = I wrote this for work.](less)
“Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” as the mostly-accurate subtitle explains. The parts it was accurate to were by far my fa...more“Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” as the mostly-accurate subtitle explains. The parts it was accurate to were by far my favorites: heeee, academics. The sections about Uzbekistan, however, mostly just taught me that I don’t want to go to Uzbekistan, and the final chapter on the original The Possessed (by Dostoevsky, a book also known as Demons) made me think that Batuman’s editor might have told her she needed another chapter, so Batuman stuck one of her old papers in. So: fun, if uneven.
Side note: Roz Chast should do more book covers; it always makes me want to read whatever they grace.(less)
“Because it’s there.” Inspiring words when used by George Mallory describing his reasons for attempting to climb Mount Everest; less so when used to e...more“Because it’s there.” Inspiring words when used by George Mallory describing his reasons for attempting to climb Mount Everest; less so when used to explain why I read this book. Basically: I’d finished the other book I had with me; I was facing a long bus ride home from work; and we’d just cleaned out all the ARCs except for this one, which had arrived that very day. And hey, it was a Japanese fantasy; there could be far worse book/reader matches.
And better ones. This was about as silly as you’d imagine. I liked the idea of the book demon—an ordinary-seeming high school girl who actually subsists off books—and the bits of literary meta were fun. But the actual plot, which involved a mystery and past generations of students and suicide and other weirdness, was pretty dull; I have forgotten most of it. Still, it got me through that bus ride. Mallory had less luck with Everest, as I recall.(less)
I loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at Su...moreI loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at Supes, too, with Our Hero, a fantastic exploration of the character’s real-life origin story, his ups and downs, and his lasting cultural impact. De Haven comes across like the wise fanboy on a hill—he's got both the perspective and the enthusiasm. Even if you're not a big fan of the Man of Steel—and I'm not—this book is a joy to read: a thoughtful investigation into why stories and characters are so important, into how an alien from Krypton can help us think about what makes us human.(less)
One of Marías’ earlier, and from the examples of his work I’ve read so far, more disjointed novels. And yet: still this is sort of irrepressibly charm...moreOne of Marías’ earlier, and from the examples of his work I’ve read so far, more disjointed novels. And yet: still this is sort of irrepressibly charming. I think, like the voyage of the title, Marías’ work tends to be more about the journey and less about the destination.(less)
Whenever I explain this book to someone, I always start with the story of the time Malcolm Lowry punched a horse. Apparently, Lowry—best known as the...moreWhenever I explain this book to someone, I always start with the story of the time Malcolm Lowry punched a horse. Apparently, Lowry—best known as the author of Under the Volcano—got so upset about something, he hauled off and slugged a horse in the face. (The horse crumpled to its knees but was otherwise all right; Lowry burst into tears.) Lowry didn't have the best luck with animals in general, it seems: there's also an anecdote in here about how he once broke the neck of a bunny he was attempting to caress; distraught, he carried the little bunny corpse around with him for days, until the odor became rather pungent.
If you like odd, darkly amusing biographical sketches about a variety of famous authors, then you, too, will get so excited over this book that you'll want to go out and punch a horse. Marías is witty and subtly cutting, though also not unsympathetic; as he says in his introduction, there are really only two authors in this book he failed to find affection for: Yukio Mishima and James Joyce. (For the scoop on Mishima, see the insanity that is Patriotism; as for Joyce...James, far be it for me to say that anyone's kink is not okay, but dude. Ew.)
This book will make you want to read the works of all these authors, as well as everything Marías has ever written. But which first? Augh, all these angsty writers were right: life is hard.(less)
Terrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfictio...moreTerrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfiction book, The Lost City of Z, and as he did in that work, Grann once again proves his skills at plumbing the depths of obsession with these fascinating short pieces. If you’re obsessed with obsession (as I am), you will easily become enthralled by this book.(less)
Interesting account/defense of the art of translation. At times I both sympathized with and was annoyed by how defensive Grossman occasionally became:...moreInteresting account/defense of the art of translation. At times I both sympathized with and was annoyed by how defensive Grossman occasionally became: it’s true that most people, from highly esteemed literary critics down to myself, don’t give translation enough thought, tending to ignore it when it’s done well and mention it only to criticize. (If you go back through my reviews of translated books, I’m sure you will indeed find that where I’ve mentioned the translation/translator at all, it’s to bitch about how clunky it is.) Do translators deserve more credit for what they do? Absolutely. Is translating a book the same as writing one, so that, for example, my copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle should read “A Novel by Haruki Murakami and Jay Rubin”? Every instinct of mine—half readerly, half writerly—screams no no NO.
And yet, as Grossman illustrates in this book—and as the aforementioned Rubin discusses in his quasi-bio, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words—the best translators, the ones whose work is not clunky, are the ones who are not literalists, who do the most shaping and rewriting. Now, I would argue that this is still not the same as writing a novel, but it’s a skill that I would agree is in need of more recognition. (It’s also one involving a degree of license that can be easily abused—I still remember with horror a French translation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that I bought in Paris and struggled through back when my French was not so poor; the idiot translator had moved huge chunks of text around and added entirely new scenes. Sacrilege!) So yes, I would say that we should celebrate good translators, and put their names on the covers of books, and mention them in more than a cursory way in reviews, whenever possible. It’s either that or learn lots and lots of other languages.
...I wish I could do the latter, honestly, because when I start to think too much about how I’ve never really read Murakami or Marías or Tolstoy—not as they were really written, not truly—I start to feel panicky, like an existential crisis might be coming on. Um. When those instant language-learning chips become available, sign me right up.(less)
Interesting, if not electrifying, biography of Murakami by one of his English translators. Rubin’s discussion of the translation process itself was pe...moreInteresting, if not electrifying, biography of Murakami by one of his English translators. Rubin’s discussion of the translation process itself was perhaps the most engaging and illuminating part—the English version of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is abridged, WHAT. I also loved hearing that Murakami pays a lot of attention to the sound and the rhythm of the words when he writes—hey, that’s my technique, too! Dude, Haruki and I are like that.
Seriously, though, while it’s great to get some more extensive biographical information to put behind Murakami’s amazing body of work, it’s interesting to note that while Rubin does a good job of explaining who Murakami is in the most basic terms, there’s really no way to break down how he does what he does. A gift like that is, I think, elusive and ineffable. Zaphod Murakami’s just this guy, you know? And that’s actually pretty awesome.(less)
Gloriously smart meta-comic that explores the relationship between reality and fiction. Carey fondly skewers everything from Harry Potter to thrillers...moreGloriously smart meta-comic that explores the relationship between reality and fiction. Carey fondly skewers everything from Harry Potter to thrillers to Rudyard Kipling in this twisty and exciting first volume. If the line between the real world and the printed page has ever seemed blurry to you, you'll love playing hopscotch with the boundary in one of the most electrifying graphic novels I've read in a long time.(less)