Sunday, January 19, 2014

Morning News Tournament of Books

Favorite Books has blogged about the The Morning News's [] Tournament of Books--I was first alerted to this interesting exercise by my good friend and proprietor of Mar's Cafe in Des Moines, Iowa, Mark Movic (thank you Mark!).

Find TMN's announcement here:

It is worth it (to me anyway) to list the Long list first because it includes Dissident Gardens and Night Film, both reviewed just now in this very blog. (The long list also includes a book I completely disliked but I won't mention its title or give it any undue publicity).

S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway
Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Y by Marjorie Celona
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
Harvest by Jim Crace
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Duplex by Kathryn Davis
Pacific by Tom Drury
The Circle by Dave Eggers
The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Middle C by William H. Gass
& Sons by David Gilbert
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Hild by Nicola Griffith
The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
The Morels by Christopher Hacker
Enon by Paul Harding
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
The Facades by Eric Lundgren
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Want Not by Jonathan Miles
The Returned by Jason Mott
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Rontel by Sam Pink
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge
All That Is by James Salter
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
Mary Coin by Marissa Silver
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Brewster by Mark Slouka
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace
The President in Her Towers by Tom Whalen
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
Stupid Children by Lenore Zion

Not a bad way to stay in touch with the year's best (except for that one I won't be mentioning)? Where to start? Here is the short list:

Finalists for the 2014 Tournament of Books

Pre-Tournament Playoff Round

 All the links take you to Powell's book store, but don't forget to check out Philly's bookstores, The Penn Book Center, Joseph Fox bookshop, Bindlestiff's (right in my neighborhood!), House of our Own on Spruce Street in University City, and Penn's own hardworking bookstore, The Penn Bookstore (you won't find books on their Web site, but they do have them!)

The tournament of books is something along the lines of the collegiate basketball playoffs. Judges take on pairs of books, with only one from each pair moving on to the next round. You can follow the judging and the reviews at The Morning News.

 Go Tournament of Books!

One last plug in this blog posting of plugs. Many of these books have been reviewed at Full-Stop: Reviews, Interviews, and Marginalia, so please check it out.

Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem. Dissident Gardens: A Novel. Doubleday, 2013.

One of my favorite Jonathan Lethem books was his 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table. This is a great comic novel of academia. The main character refers to himself as Mr. Interdisciplinary and his girlfriend, a physicist, falls in love with the lack she and her colleagues have created in the lab (the "she" that crawls across the table...into the lack). I bring this up, because this novel is rarely listed in the blurbs on the backs of Lethem novels that extol Lethem's literary prowess [Wait -- it is mentioned in his biographical blurb on the back flap!]. One of my best friends, someone with his own brand of literary prowess, recommended this 1997 gem to me and it remains at the top of my favorites ... so check it out. I'm talking myself into reading it again.

But, this isn't a review of an academic lack, this is a review of Dissident Gardens--something very far from the light and easy Table. This novel requires some attention and thought and probably some re-reading--but don't let this dissuade you--it also rewards this same attention and thought.  Do you like to have something to think about and ponder? Dissident Gardens provides a picture of post war (World War II) America from the perspective of New York City and the American Communist Party--or at least a few of its most devoted. [And before I'm done I have to say something about Inside Llewyn Davis (the film) and Dawn Powell's Golden Spur, and Philadelphia in fiction.]

This novel deserves a visualization. It would start with Rose Angrush Zimmer at the top, the matriarch, conscience, and avenging angel of Sunnyside Gardens. The novel opens with Rose's ejection from the local Communist Party cell. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Rose may be the one true remaining Communist in the American Communist Party with her daughter Miriam and her nephew Lenny who were brought into the fold by Rose willingly or not, both of whom come to separate but early and tragic deaths. Lethem is all about character in this novel. Rose haunts everyone--driving them away with her intensity and her bordering-on-crazy single-mindedness. She is the constant in this novel that spans decades, but remains geographically centered in Queens and Manhattan, with diversions to Philly and rural Pennsylvania, Germany and Nicaragua.

Back to the visualization: Rose's daughter Miriam is next in line (by my estimation) in importance. Her father, Albert, also a Communist, leaves Rose and baby Miriam to do the work of the party in Germany. Later, we learn something about Albert in the letters that he writes to Miriam after she re-establish contact with her long absent father. Miriam has all the iron will and determination of her mother, forged through her constant rebellion against Rose's authority. She marries at a young age, Tommy Gogan, one of the Gogan Boys, who together and apart, garner moderate fame during the NYC folk revival. Miriam and Tommy bring Sergius into the world, and Sergius spends most of his childhood and young adult years at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania following the death of both of his parents in the jungles of Nicaragua.

So, we have Rose and Miriam, Albert a bit off to the left, Tommy and Sergius a little below and to the right of Miriam. Now a little to the left and below Rose, we have the American Communist Party and Douglas Lookins, Rose's African American cop lover. Her affair with Lookins catapults her out of the party--is it because he is a cop? is it because he is Black? Either way, the American Communist Party is wrong and Rose is right. His son Cicero becomes Rose's protege. Under her vise-like tutelage, Cicero rises to the top of schools and scholarship competitions to land at Princeton, and then, ultimately, as a professor at a small liberal arts school in Maine. Cicero, like Miriam, does not know whether to love or hate Rose, to be grateful for the direction in which she rocket launched him, or to resent her powerful grip.

Archie Bunker is another of Rose's lovers and it is up to you, the reader, to decide whether he is a flesh and blood man who in every way resembles Archie Bunker, or an entity existing only in Rose's mind. Not least among the characters, and perhaps the most tragic of all the characters, for being the most lovable and the most unlovable a the same time, is Lenny Angrush, a brilliant chess player, expert in numismatics, devoted Communist and man of the people, baseball fan, and hopelessly, tragically in love with his younger cousin Miriam. Lenny's judgment fails him and puts him in the way of the blood thirsty, almost evaporated into thin air.

There you have the beginnings of a visualization and yet you still know so little of this novel. Each character has their own tragic center. Rose tenaciously holding onto everything even as she loses everything and everyone who has ever been important to her. Cicero, not her own child, is the last living member of her circle to remember and care for Rose. Cicero is himself an orphan, with Rose being his only connection to family as he is hers. After her death, she continues to be very much part of his burden of memory. Sergius also survives Rose, but of all the Angrush's he is the only one to be mostly untouched by Rose. Orphaned at 8, he is prevented from being taken under Rose's wing by his a letter that his mother posts to her friend Stella Kim and that arrives posthumously. Sergius barely remembers his parents having worked to forget them and the brief period in which his life overlapped with theirs. Miriam, Rose's only child, is driven by her love-hate relationship with her mother and mirrors her mother's tenacious need to control and mold. Miriam embodies the peace and non-violent movements of the 60s. She and Tommy leave Sergius in the hands of the Pennsylvania Quakers as they seek to kindle their folk sensibilities within the Nicaraguan revolution.

Here I have to digress. While reading Dissident Gardens, I took a short break and read Dawn Powell's Golden Spur. In her novel, the Golden Spur is a bar frequented by artists. This is in the 50s. By the time of Lethem's narrative, the Golden Spur is a home to the folk movement. This is the same early, pre-Dylan era that is portrayed in  the film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Interesting that this novel and film should come out so closely together. Powell's novel was written in the 50s, so the only coincidence is that I read it at the same time that I was reading Dissident Gardens and viewing Inside Llewyn Davis. In Tommy Gogan's portion of the novel, Lethem has Tommy thinking about his place among the folks as Bob Dylan takes over the stage and the air waives:  "He was disgruntled less on his own behalf than on that of Van Ronk, Clayton, so many others, all swallowed and disgorged, all eclipsed, all savaged by the splenetic fusillade pouring from the radio . . . to think yourself defined, however cursory one's own talent, by immersion in a collective voicing deeper than that of which any sole practitioner could be capable, and then to have every third remark be did you ever open for Dylan, did you ever meet Dylan, was Dylan there is Dylan coming was it like Dylan I think I saw Dylan he's a second rate Dylan...." Tommy finds his last inspiration far away from Dylan with first love and muse Miriam in Nicaragua.

Tommy and Miriam's trip to Nicaragua leaves Sergius to reinvent himself. He, the most distant from Rose, and the least affected by her often cruel intensity, brings the novel to a close. Trying to reconnect himself with the ghosts of his family, Sergius seeks out Cicero, a meeting that does neither one of them any good. As the novel ends, Sergius is making taking a personal stand against Homeland Security in a nondescript room in a nondescript airport in Maine.

More about Jonathan Lethem.

Infoglut by Mark Andrejevic

Mark Andrejevic's Infoglut*: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way we Think and Know. Routledge, 2013.

We have all been hearing about Big Data. Many a magazine has devoted an issue to the topic, and libraries are exploring ways to provide access to and storage for Big Data in all of its many manifestations across the disciplines. In the humanities, at least one way that we think about big data is in terms of large searchable text databases derived from collections of novels, letters, newspapers, perhaps legislation, the files in full text databases, or even phone books. When we talk about mining these troves of raw text data, we take note of the way a query is constructed and the kind of stop list that is created because we know that these things can drive our results. We know that results are not precisely replicable. Conducting research with big data in the humanities requires attention to detail and process, but it seems pleasantly benign after reading Infoglut.

Variations on this catchy title carry through the table of contents with the chapters “Intelligence Glut,” “Emotional Glut,” “Future Glut,” “Glut Instinct,” “Neuro-Glut,” “Theory Glut,” and finally, “Cutting through the Glut.” These clever and descriptive chapter headings are the only cheery aspects of the book. For good news on our info world, cozy up with Richard Harper’s Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload (MIT Press, 2010). Settle in for some serious reflection on life as a consumed consumer as you embark on the journey through Infoglut.

Andrejevic takes us through the monitoring, tracking, quantifying and auctioning off of our online lives as we share on social media, shop, and send emails. He describes a “post-truth” world of politics beyond the imagining of George Orwell, that takes advantage of the noise of information to float half-truths and inaccuracies, and you can add post-narrative and post-comprehension to your political vocabulary as well.  This is just the smallest taste of Andrejevic’s dark, but carefully argued text. While we see the advantages of the rapid advancement in technologies, we are not surprised that it comes with its cost. Server farms are energy hungry, privacy is easily relinquished, and truth is hard to come by. We are not strangers to these concerns in the library profession and this book reminds us of our roles in providing access without discrimination, protecting the privacy of our communities, and making available a wide range of perspectives with an eye to quality and reliability. So, I encourage you to take a look at a chapter or more of this book, but cue up your favorite comedy before calling it a night.

*Infoglut, according to the OED has been in the English language since at least 1984 appearing in the book The Netweaver's Sourcebook. It (almost) achieved title status early on in David Shenk's 1997 Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, and again in the Guardian in 2005. It also appears as the title to a book, the title of which, sounds more like a party:  Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Infoglut by Kristin Luker (You can get this book at the Free Library of Philadelphia). Find Infoglut at a library near you.

Any thoughts on info glut? There is plenty of room in this blog for a little more.

Giersbach on Night Film by Marisha Pessl

An Artist Needs Darkness

Marisha Pessl's Night Film, Random House, 2013.

By Walter Giersbach 

“Special Projects in Calamity Physics” marked 27-year-old Marisha Pessl’s debut in 2006, garnering a front-page New York Times Book Review.  Pessl writes with a unique “voice” as she follows motherless teenager Blue van Meer into school and introduces a cast of idiosyncratic characters.  A teacher is murdered, Dad is not who he appears to be, and the teenaged Bluebloods are uniquely quirky.  Is Blue discovering life or is she being led by forces she doesn’t recognize?  A tough-but-rewarding read.”

My review above was published November 2012 by the Asbury Park Press.  I was overjoyed to see that Pessl has followed her debut work with “Night Film,” another novel in which things aren’t what they seem.  This captivating almost-thriller follows a newsman’s search for Cordova, the underground film maker who hasn’t been seen in years.  Cordova had won a libel suit against the narrator, but in the interest of news the writer begins investigating the death of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter Ashley.  Was she an apparent suicide by falling down the elevator shaft of an abandoned building in New York’s Chinatown— or was she pushed?  Careful steps through a Funhouse Arcade of deception, mystery, supernatural manifestations and coincidences take the narrator into the lives of a cult figure.

Interspersed with the narrative are graphic pages from Web sites, police reports, news clippings and ephemera that tell the tale alongside the narrative arc of the plot.  Like David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” this is less a straight-forward story and more the unfolding of characters, motives and existential questions.

Key to peeling away layers of plot deception is Cordova’s former wife, who explains,

“Darkness.  I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create.  It gives him power.  His invisibility.  The less the world knows about him, her whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has.  The more inanities about him the world eats, the smaller and drier his art until it shrinks and shrivels into a Lucky Charms marshmallow to be consumed in a little bowl with milk for breakfast.”

We need more Cordovas…and more Pessls.  She’s marvelous as a stylist.  The now 35-year-old writer describes, for example, a young hat check employee at the Four Seasons:

According to the police report, she’d been working here only a few weeks.  She was about 5’7” and scrawny as a question mark, with pale blond hair in a French twist — curls around her face channeling alfalfa.  She wore a brown skirt and brown blouse too big for her — the restaurant uniform visible shoulder pads sitting unevenly over her frame….

“Good evening, sir,” she said brightly, removing her glasses, revealing big blue eyes and delicate features that would have made her an “it girl” about four hundred years ago….  She was wearing harsh pink lipstick, which didn’t look like it’d been applied in good light or within two feet of a mirror.”

Don’t let this emerging literary giant — Pessl, not the hat check girl — pass you by!

For more on Marisha Pessl
Find more reviews by Walter Giersbach in this blog or even more at his own blog:‎