Sunday, November 28, 2010
They shouldn't have to worry about this problem; although I'm sure they are happy to have such a profitable concern. Observing the demand for this book, it seems to be sheer madness and a herd mentality that is driving the Mark Twain frenzy. People are buying this book who haven't glanced at Twain since they were forced to read him in high school or college. My guess is that many copies of the Autobiography now in the hands of gleeful customers will end up, after great disappointment, flooding back into the bookstore in 2011 as forgotten used tomes.
I love Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's a book that I read in high school and college and returned to for a third time about a decade ago. I've never been disappointed with Huck, and each reading has yielded more rewards and a greater admiration for Twain. My 12th grade English teacher introduced the book as the greatest novel in American history. To this day, I wouldn't quibble with that. (By the way, she considered William Faulkner the greatest American fiction writer and James Joyce the greatest writer of fiction in English. I'm not sure I consider Finnegan's Wake English, but that's besides the point.)
The Autobiography of Mark Twain is no Huck Finn. Not by a long shot. Nearly 500 pages of the 4-pound book is either unreadable doggerel composed of false starts and academic self-aggrandizement or notes and appendices that only a grad student would ever need to dive into.
Esquire did a great break down on how to read the book in one day that serves to highlight the book's shortcomings more than anything else.
In Adam Gopnik's insightful piece in The New Yorker's November 29th edition, he shows how the book's main two selling points aren't really that impressive. The first is that the manuscript was suppressed for 100 years on Twain's wishes. Twain wanted to make sure that everyone he mentioned in the book was dead by the time it was publicly disseminated. The problem with this according to Gopnik is that only 5% of the new volume actually contains unpublished Twain material. His autobiography has been published three previous times, and this one doesn't add that much. The other selling point is that readers are getting a truly authentic view of Twain's life. However, Gopnik notes that Twain gave up on candor early into the writing process.
Gopnik's conclusion on the Twain volume: "A book that had been a disjointed and largely baffling bore emerges now as a disjointed and largely baffling bore."
Of course there will be some true Twain devotees that will relish every fresh word and enjoy rereading some of the other material in here. But enough true admirers to push the book to the top spot on all the bestseller lists? No, no, no. Most of those books are going to people who will put the book on their shelf and perhaps read a page or two from it. They'll have just enough to quote at a New Year's Day party if the topic comes up. It will be gathering dust by Martin Luther King Day.
If you want a memoir that will bring a fresh perspective from an entertaining raconteur, I'd humbly suggest a copy of Life by Keith Richards. Oh yeah, there is no problem getting copies of it. Hachette rightfully expected that the Rolling Stone who remembers it all would produce a bestseller that no one would consider a bore.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
In my review of the second book , I did not mention that Dresner was self publishing the book and the same holds true in this review. It seems less relevent now than it did two years ago that Dresner decided to publish the books on his own. We sell self published, or what I like to call quasi-published books every day at the Boulder Book Store. These quasi-published books are ones from presses that are very small and are often just publishing their authors books on demand. Some of our best events come from the ranks of Independently published authors and our customers don't seem to make distinctions between major publishers, small publishers and independent publishers as long as they enjoy the work and get to meet the author.
Personally, I still believe strongly in the publishing houses and the work that they do. I'd love to see Dresner get picked up for a few reasons. I'd be interested to see how a great science fiction editor would polish his work. I also think his books have something meaningful to say and that a large press could give them the distribution that they deserve.
Here's the review:
Richard is startled. He asks, “What happened to you Yuri? Where did you go? Tell me, please, if you can. I need to know. What did you see?”
Yuri’s answer is simple, but sets up the fantastic plot to this concluding book in Dresner’s Astral Imperative trilogy. “God. I saw God.”
The questions of the existence of God and the possibility of another level of consciousness permeates this novel set in 2053 simply because our existence on Earth has become so tenuous and our means of escape so limited. Environmental catastrophes combined with rampant nationalism and runaway technology has threatened the viability of the human race. Depending on the characters point of view and to some extent the readers, Yuri is either a savior or a charlatan.
“Yuri was the one who had to bear witness on our human existence,” Dresener said. “He inhabits different realms and realities. Is he delusional? Do you believe him or don’t you? What happened to Yuri is not out of the realm of human experience. In my travels to India I met people like that.”
The Yuri of the first two books did not seem a likely character for enlightenment. An astrobiologist by training and a world renowned poet, he spent much of his time involved in all too human entanglements on the ship to Mars and on the Red planet’s primitive space station. His conversion to a spiritual state did not occur until a battle between the colonists broke out at the end of the second book. Slowly, Yuri begins to reveal to the other characters just what he has seen during his twelve-year sojourn communing with the divine.
“I’ve seen so much; I’ve lived so many lives and still live them. I’ve seen so much violence between beings, between countries, between worlds, between entire solar systems – even galaxies that demand more space to expand at the expense of other galaxies. I’ve seen suns that are jealous of one another’s light.”
Gradually, some of the colonists’ curiosity turns to revulsion as they learn just how radical Yuri’s visions were and just what they may mean for their own existence. Is he a madman or a prophet? It’s a question that has been asked for centuries on Earth. It’s not an easy question for the reader when we hear Yuri get to the base of his creed.
“God is movement. God is evolution. God is war. God is peace. God is raping and killing children. God is suffering for the sins of other beings in this life and in other lives, and dying for them….And the greatest sin of all is when we are consigned to see the half of it, when the light of creation is divided into good and evil, and right and wrong, between what is divine and not divine, when we choose sides instead of choosing life when your very lives are at stake.”
For Yuri, the highest purpose of God is simply survival. Nothing truly dies. Our energy must be put into the effort to survive. Of course for much of the novel the very continuance of the human race is in doubt.
“Implicit in the movement to destruction is the will to survive,” Dresner said. “So far humanity by the narrowest sliver has moved ahead on the evolutionary scale. We always choose to live even if we aren’t conscious of how we make that choice.”
Dresner’s Earth is still recognizable with a few tweaks. Nationalism, especially a powerful Russia and China, still dominate the political landscape despite the fact that most of the world’s problems transcend geographic borders. Our worst fears of global warming won’t prepare us for his vision of 2053 where terrible earthquakes and fierce storms have visited the globe. Many parts of the world experience perpetual summer while Western Europe and the East Coast remain mired in deep winter conditions all the way into May. Things are degrading so quickly that even the man on the moon can see our problems.
“The view of Earth from moon orbit was not as beautiful as it once was because of the smoke bellowing out of Australia and Africa, which clung to passing clouds and turned them gray,” Dresner writes.
Even simple conversations in the future are changing in subtle ways with the emergence of techno-glasses. These eyeglasses act as computer screens as well as communication and recording devices. They make today’s laptops, Ipods and Bluetooth headsets seem downright clumsy and unobtrusive. A sense that technology will continue to march on producing everyday gadgets on the one hand and potentially destroying the human race on the other imbues this novel with a sense of fatalism.
“Like it or not the next evolutionary step will be bio-technology,” Dresner said. “Our physiological beings will be married to tech expertise. That’s what can take us out of the solar system. A lot of the story is predicated on whether we are prepared for that evolution.”
On Earth one charismatic man, Fritz Kreiger, believes that we are not ready to make the evolutionary leap into space. After reaching prominence during the first manned mission to Mars as an opponent to the program, he disappeared during the intervening years. The awakening of Yuri, an event that has as many repercussions on Earth as on Mars, forces Krieger out of his anonymous life and back into the forefront of the battle to save mankind.
Krieger visits the man who helped create the powerful Dream Machine that is housed on the Mars colony. The Dream Machine started as a simulated holographic game in the first novel, but has now achieved sentience and has either communed with the divine or been hijacked by an alien intelligence. As Yuri and the Dream Machine set off from Mars to return to Earth, tensions build between nations vying for control of the all powerful computer. It is Krieger, one of Dresner’s most balanced and finely drawn characters, that tries to take the lead in the response.
The question of just who Yuri is becomes paramount. In a world that is even more skeptical and cynical than ours it is certainly hard to accept Yuri at his word as he speeds towards Earth with something more powerful than all the bombs on the planet. The Dream Machine contains the power to both destroy and save humanity.
“We don’t have seers. We are such a regimented culture that we are losing our seers,” Dresner said. “Sometimes the greatest transformations of enlightened beings are discovered at the bottom of despair. How you get to that bottom on Prozac or Ritalin? We are denying humanity the full range of experience. When you have hooded instincts and padded senses, it is easy to get blind.”
Perhaps as readers contemplate some the technological, ecological and spiritual issues that Dresner raises in ReGenesis, they will begin to see just a little more clearly into the future.
Monday, April 26, 2010
I figured Hellhound would be no different. It was probably just another magazine article extended to a full-length book. Why read 400 pages when a well-written review would give me all the nefarious details of James Earl Ray's horrendous deed? After Sides' talk, I couldn't resist dipping into the book despite my natural aversion to true crime.
Eight days and several sleep deprived nights later, I finished the book and sure am thankful that Sides convinced me to pick it up. His tale of James Earl Ray's exploits starting with his 1967 jail break and ending with his abbreviated escape 10 years later is meticulously detailed, unrelentingly suspenseful and magnificently written.
Ray emerges as one bizarre, hateful guy. In the months leading up to the assassination, he takes dance lessons, goes to bartending school, enrolls in a locksmithing correspondence course and dabbles with the idea of making pornography. In a goodwill mission, he also drives from Los Angeles to New Orleans to retrieve two children for a girlfriend. He's also a master of aliases. He picks up and drops off a half dozen names throughout his fugitive days.
Sides said in his talk that because of these aliases, he didn't refer to Ray by his true name until after page 300 of the book. I thought this was a bit gimmicky when he mentioned it, but was surprised that the sleight of hand works. First Ray is known by his prison number, then by his main pre-assassination alias of Eric Starvo Galt and, finally, as Ramon Sneyd. It isn't until the FBI sifts through these various names and learns the true identity of the killer that Sides uses Ray's name.
When Sneyd is caught in London, two months after the assassination, he firmly denies being James Earl Ray. The most humorous moment of the book is when Sneyd asks to call his brother -- Jerry Ray. He didn't see anything contradictory in this. He had operated in more than one reality for so long that it didn't occur to him that he'd basically confessed.
The final months of King's life are vividly recreated. Sides uses mostly secondary sources for these details, relying on Ralph Abernathy's 1989 memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, and Andrew Young's book on the Civil Rights movement, An Easy Burden. He gives us a powerful narrative of a leader on the run. King was running from the recriminations of the FBI (they knew he had mistresses and were perhaps goading him to kill himself), the black power movement that wanted him to move aside so the revolution could really start and, finally, the knowledge that somewhere out there a killer probably lurked.
Sides also did some primary research - traveling to several of the places Ray hid out, interviewing participants of events and diving deep into the congressional records. However, the true strength of the book is the weaving together of already existing records and facts into a coherent and tight narrative. I appreciate the narrow focus of the book. Sides sticks to Ray and the final months of King's life. He assumes the reader has at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil Rights movement.
Sides does a great job in answering the question of why King was gunned down in Memphis. His movements were so peripatetic in the spring of 1968 that Ray couldn't even track him down in his hometown of Atlanta. In Memphis, King got stalled for several days trying to organize a peaceful march for the striking garbage workers. He had no choice but to stick it out, because a few weeks earlier a march in Memphis had turned violent mortifying King and putting the moral currency of his whole movement in jeopardy.
The role of the FBI is truly fascinating. The agency head J. Edgar Hoover hated King. This is a widely known fact and it was known at the time especially by anyone close to King. When Ray killed King many people assumed that the FBI was involved. It was an almost impossible situation that the agency found itself in, yet they exhausted every lead, spared no expense and somehow tracked down the elusive gunman two months later.
At the luncheon, Sides spoke about how the book was structured around three chases. Ray was chasing King, the FBI was chasing King and the FBI was also chasing Ray. He professed admiration for the way the FBI conducted the investigation. "Once they started doing the job they were meant to do, they did it superbly." Sides said.
I knew I was in the grip of a powerful book when, in a bizarre way, I was almost hoping that Ray wouldn't get caught. Sides' has done such a superb job with the narrative that the reader gets swept up in Ray's point of view. We see his desperation as the FBI closes in, we feel his panic as his money starts to dry up and we understand the turmoil in his mind when the gig is up and he says, "Oh God. I feel so trapped."
Sides doesn't subscribe to any conspiracy theories. The evidence overwhelmingly points to Ray. He bought the gun, his fingerprints were on the gun, he was at the scene of the crime and he had been stalking King for weeks. Where he got his money isn't entirely known. His brother's possible involvement is an open question. At the luncheon, Sides didn't shut the door to the possibility that Ray had some form of aid, but certainly the evidence doesn't point to anything that could be called a conspiracy.
Don't make the same mistake that I usually do. Don't just read the articles and think you know the story, read Sides' book and discover an odd corner of American history.
Hellhound on His Trail will be released on April 27.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
“When you grow up around women, you know that they all harbor secrets,” Newman said. “That was one of the inspirations for the story.”
The secrets in Sister Blackberry are much more than your garden variety women’s secrets. We aren’t talking about cheating spouses, petty crimes, or even aborted pregnancy. Viola Garland is covering up the identity of a child, a murder and, most fascinating of all, the ambiguous sexuality of her daughter.
The story opens in 1936 in Reyes County, Kentucky, when Viola is eighteen and pregnant. The events that unfold around the birth of her child will have far-reaching consequences to the present day. Viola is worried because her husband, Den, a miner, might not be at home when she goes into labor. Her friend and neighbor, Janie, is also pregnant, and the two women comfort each other despite Janie’s violent husband, Bick’s, disapproval of Viola.
In this passage right before the babies are born, Viola ruminates on her concern over Janie’s situation:
“She suspected that Bick would hit Janie when he found out she and Viola had been together. There weren’t as many bruises and marks since Janie had gotten pregnant, but there were still signs. Viola couldn’t figure out how someone as sweet as Janie could be married to a man who would hit her. And what about the baby? Would Bick hit the baby?”
Bick is a truly menacing character and provides a stark contrast to the many women that populate the book.
“Bick was well thought out,” Newman said. “I wanted to see how far he would go. What would push him? What was important to him? What would lead him to violence?”
Viola and Janie give birth on the same night. Viola, alone because Den is in the mine and there is no time for her to get help. Janie is attended by the narrow-minded charismatic leader of Bick’s evangelical church and his wife. Neither birth goes as planned. In a harrowing and dreamlike passage, the lives of all the characters are altered in unforeseen ways by the two births. The secrets begin.
“I dreamt this story like a movie,” Newman said. “This is something that really disturbed me. I dreamed the characters of Viola and (her daughter) Doris. I wrote an outline and then I did a lot of research…. I wrote it before Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex came out. It sat in a drawer for a long time.”
As Doris grows up, she has a secret that she doesn’t quite understand herself. Why don’t her genitals look like her sister Nadine’s? Why aren’t her breasts developing?
Ultimately, it is the jealousy between the sisters that reveals Doris’ secret in the most humiliating way possible. Stuck in small-town Kentucky in the 1950s, Doris feels that there is no other option but to leave.
“Relationships with sisters are very complex and competitive,” Newman said. “Add a boy and it’s like fire and kerosene coming together. I drew on something that happened with me and my sister. We both liked the same boy in high school. I thought about how cruel I was, wanting to humiliate her.”
Doris’ story of surviving as a runaway is, in many ways, the strongest part of the book. The scenes of her life in Cleveland don’t have nearly the drama that some of the earlier scenes contain, but Newman is really able to delve into her character. The writing is more assured, and several of the characters that Doris meets are quickly and adeptly developed. Doris emerges in this section as a stable and wise centerpiece to the novel. Against the odds, she finds her way in the world. In a way, Nadine has done her sister a favor by freeing her to live in the wider world.
However, Doris, like Newman herself, returns to her Kentucky home. Newman, who worked as a journalist throughout the Midwest, returned to her rural Kentucky roots eight years ago.
“Doris wanted to go home,” Newman said. “We spend the first half of our lives trying to get out and the second half trying to get back home. Doris had seen it and done it and was ready to come back.”
Nadine has a tougher time. The guilt of what she’s done to her sister will haunt her for the rest of her life. She will also pass down her feelings of inadequacy to her own daughters, blaming Doris for her misery.
“Nadine got what she wanted,” Newman said. “But it wasn’t really what she wanted. She just wanted to be like Doris. Once Doris was gone she didn’t really want Edwin (the boy they were fighting over). It caused her alcoholism and her miserable marriage.”
Newman does an excellent job in teasing out these plotlines in a subtle yet powerful way. The various revelations are well-paced and suspenseful. She shows us how guilt and lying can wear down a family. The lying is something that the 87-year old Viola cannot live with any longer. It is her desire to tell Nadine’s grown daughters the truth about the family that ultimately drives this tale.
Newman is at work on her second novel and believes that she’s learned a great deal from writing Sister Blackberry. Here’s hoping she’s still got a few secrets up her sleeve.
Monday, April 05, 2010
I gave up on the publishing industry for a month or two there. The piles of reader's copies stopped speaking to me. The gleaming jackets of the new novels did not beguile me. The letters from publicists and the imploring stares from the reps that still have jobs did not move me. It all seemed stale, repackaged, and if it wasn't written about Zombies it seemed to be written by Zombies or written for Zombies. I am not a Zombie.
Instead I cleansed my mind by reading Madame Bovary and Notes from the Underground. Both were novels I should have read years ago. My favorite Woody Allen short story, The Kugelmass Episode, features a New Yorker going to Yonville in order to carry on an affair with the Emma Bovary. Ah... now I really get it. I enjoyed the novel but wasn't a big fan of Emma. I loved many of the minor characters, most notably Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist.
Dostoyevsky's little masterpiece was the first translation by the dynamic duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I've read. I compared several paragraphs to the Constance Garnett translation and found the new one more lithesome and easier to grasp. The biggest difference comes in the first sentence. Garnett writes, "I am a sick man....I am a spiteful man." Pevear's reads "I am a sick man....I am a wicked man." Wicked is a much broader word than spiteful. It's particularly important because it is how our narrator defines himself throughout the entire book. To be spiteful is to merely hold a grievance. To be wicked is to dissolute to the core.
After my brief foray into the classics, I returned to the contemporary novel and read three that I really enjoyed. Actually, enjoyed is not quite the right word for Chang Rae Lee's The Surrendered. It's a harsh novel but if you can get through the first 50 pages about the destruction of a Korean family during the war, you've gotten through the toughest part. That's not quite true, there is a brutal sequence later on set in Manchuria that gave me nightmares.
Here are my latest recommendations posted in the store:
The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee
This harrowing novel follows the lives of both Korean and American survivors of the Korean War. June and Hector are reunited despite their secret of history of violence and lost love. Lee slowly reveals their parallel tales building the novel's tension and showing us a world permanently marked by wars and atrocity.
The Morey family has it all -- looks, charms, wits and money, lots of it. What they lack is scruples, ethics and some basic humanity.
Civil War intrigue, Jewish history and beautiful spies are the foundation for Horn's enthralling novel. Jacob Rappaport, a 19-year old private, is dispatched to
Thursday, December 03, 2009
In the last month, I've managed to read a few adult novels between encore performances of Goodnight Gorilla and Are You My Mother that probably won't appear on any year-end top 10 lists, but that are worth remembering and discussing. All three of these novels feature strong female characters and interesting narrative twists.
The best of the bunch was Katharine Weber's True Confections. Weber's book won't come out until later this month, but it's been on my radar since the summer, when Weber tracked me down with a friendly email and asked that I give it a try. She thought my love of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint might make me a sympathetic reader. She was right. Here's the recommendation tag that I've written up for the store:
I love an unreliable narrator. The reader has to look for clues in the dialogue, in other characters' reactions and in subtle hints to divine the real story. Weber employs this device to create a brilliant satire on the candy industry. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky of Zip's Candies tells her story in a rambling affidavit that exposes the racist origins of the company and her complicity in the firm's many disasters.
Weber weaved in so many fascinating and arcane facts about the candy business (my favorite was that Hart Crane's father invented lifesavers) that I began to believe that she made them up. She didn't. Her amazing research gives her quirky narration a verisimilitude that few comic novels achieve. The story lives on in Weber's blog Staircase Writing where she has continued to delve into her candy obsession.
Nancy Mauro's debut novel New World Monkeys was another comedy that featured a lot of obsessive behavior. I felt that Mauro's strength and weaknesses were one and the same. The novel is about a lot of different things (a failing marriage, a mangled ad campaign, a pervert, the excavation of long buried bones, crazy townsfolk) that make for intriguing reading. But sometimes it feels that the novel is too jam-packed. A little focus and quiet space could have allowed her two lead characters to be realized in a fuller way. The pervert, a minor side character, was the most human in the eclectic cast and the reader is both thrilled and terribly disgusted when he succeeds. Here's my recommendation tag:
A rollicking novel about two city slickers who inherit a rural house with disastrous consequences (they run over the town mascot - a wild boar on their initial journey to the home) as they cling to their deteriorating marriage. Lily digs up her ancestor's missing maid and wards off the boar's crazy owner while
Check out this promotional video that Mauro, an advertising professional, made for the book. It closely portrays the novel's opening scene.
Peter Rock's My Abandonment follows the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Portland's Forest Park for several years. He tells the story from the 13-year old girl's perspective. Her tale unfolds beautifully, almost poetic in the rhythm and language. She's at one with nature in the forest, running through the paths in bare feet, strangely attune to any noises or changes in the direction of the wind. It all comes to an end when the camp is discovered by a backcountry jogger and the pair are taken into police custody.
Rock follows the story past its real-life roots. The pair disappeared some years ago and no one seems to know what became of them. Rock imagines a macabre and paranoid future for the father--one that didn't ring quite true to me based on the family's time in the woods and how he handled his brief confinement. Still, it was a wonderful read that reminded me of some of the great young adult books of my youth, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves. Here's an interview with Peter Rock about the true story behind his novel.