And we thought we were over short story collections
It's not that I don't agree with writer Tobias Wolff, who the Guardian quoted in 2008 as saying of the form "you sense - as with some of Joyce's stories and Hemingway's - that perfection is attainable. That's an amazing invitation to have: at last, here's something in life that maybe I can control. Nothing else." A great short story is like nothing else. It's a gem you'll remember. But I sometimes think of it as an engagement ring from a writer, while the novel at its best feels more like a marriage to me, deeper and truer and at its best, a fulfillment of the promise of the short story. And I'd always rather have the (good) marriage than the engagement. This is why--oh this is a hard one to admit--I don't read every Alice Munro story that comes down the pike.
Bing: More on Tobias Wolff
I did buy a short story collection recently, Rebecca Lee's "Bobcat and other stories," which I'd heard praised and which Ben Fountain, author of the excellent short story collection "Brief Encounters with Che Guevera" and the even more excellent novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" blurbed as "nothing short of brilliant." And as so often happens with these collections, the title story in it, "Bobcat," absolutely blew me away. To the point where I wasn't in the mood to shift to the other stories; I was afraid of a downgrade. I'll get to the rest of Rebecca Lee's stories, eventually, but it will be in fits and starts.
I'm not sure any of the stories in the Barbash collection are as startlingly good as "Bobcat," but there is something about his voice that just kept inviting me to go to the next story. It may be that most of these pieces are set in New York, city and state, and so there's an immediate sense of cohesion, as if you're visiting with characters who really do all live within this geographic area. He creates a sense of his own telephone book, if you will.
The first story is about a divorced mother with a college age son home on Christmas break. He's in "his sophomore year at college, and had become the sort of young man women smiled at, and not only girls of his age." The mother behaves very strangely and very badly after her son picks up, or is picked up by, the hostess from their favorite pizza place on Columbus Avenue. Put it this way, there is a scene where she wanders the streets in her nightgown, spying on them. It's great and if you are the mother of a boy, a little terrifying. What I like so much about Barbash's voice is the lack of fuss--it's direct and clear--and the fact that he goes back and forth between giving believable voice to both men and women with what seems like utter ease. "Stay Up with Me" is exactly the book I'd want on a train or airplane trip, the kind that makes me look up at fellow travelers and imagine them having lives like the ones on these pages.
Bing: More on Tom Barbash
But know that the odds are in retiring writer Jim Crace's favor
The short list:
NoViolet Bulawayo for "We Need New Names"
Eleanor Catton for "The Luminaries"
Jim Crace for "Harvest"
Jhumpa Lahiri for "The Lowlands"
Ruth Ozeki for "A Tale for the Time Being"
Colm Tóibín for "The Testament of Mary"
Did you know that in England, bets are placed on the outcome of the Booker? When the longlist was announced, Crace was leading the pool, perhaps getting the sentimental edge because back in 2008 he announced he'd retire in three years and that would presumably make, "Harvest," which came out four years later, his last novel. He's also the only Englishman on the list. He was in the running for the Booker more than a decade ago for his 1997 novel "Quarantine."
Bing: More on the Booker Prize
I wish someone would get bets going for the National Book Award. Or maybe they do but no one confesses to placing bets on an American literary award, lest they be harshly judged by their countrymen.
If you want to do some speed reading through the list before the awards are announced October 15, start with Tóibín's book--it's only 104 pages. Catton's is 832 pages, which might be a deterrent, but she's only 28 and they're calling this the Great New Zealand Novel. Ozeki's book is rich, playful and complex and I wish her well (especially since when the prize people asked all the longlisted authors to say what they were reading now, Ozeki was the only one who said she was reading one of the writers she was competing against). Bulawayo is the first-ever nominee from Zimbabwe and "We Need New Names" is her first novel. Meanwhile Lahiri has been widely celebrated for years, but "The Lowlands" is only her second novel. I've got the galley for "The Lowlands" on my Kindle and plan on diving in the minute I finish Norman Rush's "Subtle Bodies," which seems slated to be nominated for a bunch of American awards in the next year.
Bing: More on Jim Crace
Regardless, the pop princess is churning out two of them
"One of the things that has helped me in my recovery is taking every day one day at a time," Lovato says in the video, in which she is wearing what appears to be a Boy George costume (or maybe she's just sporting a new blonde dye job). "And I am a firm believer in starting every day right with an inspirational quote and sort of a morning meditation."
Apparently many of the quotations are ones Lovato has already tweeted out in her time of recovery. (Maybe the subtitle will be S*&t My Popstar Says?) In November 2010, Lovato entered rehab for drug abuse, bulimia and urges to self-mutilate. She spent three months in rehab and says she has been staying strong ever since. Which will be inspiring to young fans or her peers, one imagines, her 17.8 million Twitter followers, who are already privy to such pearls of wisdom as the one she shared on September 6: "Learn from the past and share your experience with others. Cherish the present and look forward to the future."
The pop princess is slated for a guest starring role in the new season of "Glee." In a multi-book deal with publisher Feiwel (FYE'-well) and Friends, Lovato is also working on a memoir. She just turned 21.
Bing: More on Feiwei and Friends
If you are detecting a note of skepticism about the inspirational guide it is because when I was 21, the gems I would have passed on to my peers would have been more on the lines of "get a roll of quarters from the bank--or maybe two!--so that doing laundry isn't such a hassle" or "stay away from beer bongs or you will totally be puking in the bushes at the SAE house."
But to be fair, Lovato seems pretty level-headed. Here's what she told Seventeen Magazine recently about her recovery from bulimia: "Yes, there have been times when I definitely have been tempted to get rid of my dinner. But I will deal with it for the rest of my life because it's a life-long disease. I don't think there's going to be a day when I don't think about food or my body, but I'm living with it, and I wish I could tell young girls to find their safe place and stay with it." If I had a 15 year-old daughter, I'd want her to get a message like that from someone she cared to listen to. And more likely than not, she'd prefer to listen to Lovato than me.
Bing: More on Demi Lovato
She is actually rather pleased. But please, don't call her strident
But she was most definitely annoyed after The Atlantic Wire's Alexander Nazaryan posted a piece on her tweeted laments under the headline "Jennifer Weiner is Mad at the New York Times Book Review Again." It was snarky in that bloggy style (glass houses, Page-turner, glass houses) and referred to Weiner as the un-appointed ombudsman of the book review.
Bing: More on Jennifer Weiner
The post went on to suggest, without attribution, that some people, even other women, believed her "strident" criticisms were starting to backfire in the book world, causing people to "tune" her out. Nazaryan changed to "strong" after Weiner and others with a clue pointed out the inherent sexism in the word. Duh. When's the last time you heard a man called strident, other than say, Vladimir Putin? (Thanks Slate, for researching this even though, boy, you're snotty about Weiner.) The Atlantic Wire also ran a sort of counter post by Weiner.
But by Monday, when I spoke to her, Weiner was actually feeling kind of good about the NYTSBR, thanks to the debut Sunday of the section's new Short List feature, which promise "close-ups of new books of interest grouped each week according to subject, theme or genre. One week might look at new science fiction or horror, the next the latest essay anthologies of note." That definitely sounds commercial. The first round up is of novels "starring defiant women" although the headline dubs them "difficult." Terry McMillan and Chelsea Cain, both decidedly commercial, are reviewed, along with Nicole Galland.
"I think this Short List thing is fabulous," Weiner told me. "It is the exact thing I've been talking about for years and years. They finally listened. [She was joking.] Or maybe, they didn't listen at all and it is just coincidence. But it's a start."
She also noted that the Sunday Book Review, which editor Pamela Paul took over earlier this year, has included more reviews written by women and reviews of books by women. The paper seems to be making a concerted effort to rectify those VIDA statistics on gender bias at book reviews and magazines, which the group has gathered annually for several years and which sadly, regularly demonstrates just how severely skewed toward male writers major publications are.
Some backstory: Weiner writes and sells (lots) the kind that tend to have covers featuring pensive women and/or inviting beds dressed in crisp linens. Her books--she's published ten in the last 12 years--do get reviewed in major publications, including the Washington Post, which called her latest, "The Next Best Thing," "snappy." From Library Journal to People Magazine, the consensus is that Weiner is funny and entertaining.
However, she has never been reviewed in The New York Times, and as a former newspaper reporter who grew up in Connecticut reading the paper, that smarts, even though Weiner is, by almost every standard out there, a raging success. One of her books, "In Her Shoes," was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz. She co-created a sitcom called "State of Georgia." And her loyal readers, who regularly give her novels four stars on Amazon, probably don't care about the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
"My suspicion is that the vast majority of my readers could care less," she said. "They don't get their book news from the Times. They don't give the tiniest of craps that the Times doesn't cover me."
Bing: More on Pamela Paul
But Weiner, and I suspect 99 percent of writers, would rather be reviewed badly in the New York Times than not be reviewed at all. "Sometimes I'll see people lamenting over their bad Times review," Weiner said. "But at least they know you exist." (The remaining 1 percent are writers who already are reviewed in the Times.)
Maybe a review of Weiner's next book, "All Fall Down," about a successful businesswoman and mother who is struggling with addiction to pain medications, will make it into the Shortlist when it comes out (it is scheduled for Spring 2014).
In the meantime, I'd lobby for throwing her into the mix for features like Bookends, mainly because she's smart and opinionated and very in tune with the book world. And I say that as someone who doesn't always agree with her. I immediately tweeted a defense of the Bookends' announcement to her mainly because I think Stevens and Holmes are so great (and Zoe Heller and Mohsin Hamid as well, but you know, 140 characters). I like the list of Bookends contributors. But I also like Weiner's lively, engaged voice. I admire her lack of fear. I like the fact that she's not ashamed to admit she'd like to be reviewed in the Times. Or to defend herself when someone calls her "strident" for voicing an opinion.
Would she write an occasional column for the Times, if the Gray Lady came calling?
"Oh yeah," she said. "Absolutely. I have lots of opinions."
No one has asked (although Weiner did participate in the NYT Style section's "What I Wore" feature this summer). Weiner wonders whether commercial writers don't get considered for these kind of reviewing or column gigs (other than say, Stephen King for Entertainment Weekly) because the perception is they don't need the money or the exposure and are too busy "drinking champagne or acquiring original Van Goghs." She says she'd make time and she thinks some of her fellow bestselling authors would as well.
"I think that the idea that commercial writers are too busy taking money back to want to participate is untrue. I think a lot of us care deeply about the book world, about issues that come up from ethical issues to e-books versus printed books, from independent publishing versus traditional. We care about this stuff, we think about this. We will make time for something important."
Until the National Book Award's honorary Literarian, she was shut out. Who else was?
Maya Angelou was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. She's won three Grammys. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her very first poetry collection, 1971's "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie." But the 85 year-old American icon has never won a major literary prize. Until now. The National Book Foundation announced today that Angelou is this year's winner of the National Book Award's Literarian prize, to be presented at the group's annual awards ceremony in November.
At left, that's Angelou giving her "I know, can you believe it?" face.
In a statement, the foundation's executive director Harold Augenbraum praised Angelou for her vital role in America, on the page and beyond. "Dr. Angelou's body of work transcends the words on the page. She has been on the front lines of history and the fight for social justice and decade after decade remains a symbol of the redemptive power of literature in the contemporary world."
Frankly, we were shocked to hear that this is the first major literary award Angelou has received. But she's in good company. (And sometimes the awards, like this one, come late in life. It took Joan Didion until 2005 to win the National Book Award even though, you know, she's Joan Didion.) Here are a few others who didn't get to eat rubber chicken and be handed a plaque/statute/check.
Vladimir Nabokov was a finalist for the National Book Award seven times, but never won. He was passed over for the Nobel too. Fire of my loins!
Bing: More on Vladimir Nabokov
Kurt Vonnegut was once a finalist for the National Book Award, but that's as close as he came. Kurt Vonnegut! And dead like Nabokov so it's too late.
Lorrie Moore was a finalist for both the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award for "A Gate at the Stairs" but that's as close as she has come to a major award. She's relatively young however.
David Mitchell will have his day at some big time podium, we're sure (If you haven't read him, get on that and start with the accessible "Black Swan Green") but to date, he has been shortlisted for the Booker twice without winning.
Martin Amis has been on the Booker shortlist once and longlist once, but that's as good as it's gotten for the famed British novelist, whose every move--including leaving London for Brooklyn--is cause for fussing in the press. He's not my cup of tea, but those who love him really love him.
Mary Karr has a Pushcart, she's been awarded a Guggenheim, but where are the big awards for the poet and more famously, memoirist ("Lit," "The Liar's Club" and "Cherry"?)
The point here is that there are plenty of writers who regularly get the shaft on these big awards. And there's always something to complain about. For instance Philip Roth has cleaned up domestically with the National Book Award (twice) and the Pulitzer but there is an annual boo hoo when he doesn't get the Nobel. But hurrah for Angelou, finally getting her due from the literary community.
Bing: More on Maya Angelou
Convenient, sure, but would you read them in the tub? That's the rub
Random House announced today that its Children's Book division will be releasing 41 Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel) titles as e-books, starting on September 24. This is great news for a lot of parents, especially ones who are tired of dragging bulky reading materials onto planes, trains or into automobiles.
This news doesn't make me mad. But not all that glad. Maybe the better word is sad.
I am not by any means opposed to the e-reader, in fact, this is the year I, as my Page-turner colleague Kate Erbland confessed to yesterday, finally embraced the technology. We have one Kindle for the family, and while I hog it for the most part (OMG, I've got a galley of Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" on there now), I've downloaded a few of his favorites on it for travel. We were camping last week and when the headlamp died, the Kindle stepped in at bedtime. It was useful, portable and fit neatly in my smallish purse.
Bing: More on Dr. Seuss
On the other hand, pictured at left, my son's bookcase. Or one of them. You can only see one Seuss volume there, "Green Eggs and Ham," which will be part of the September release (others will come in October and November). Sometimes I walk into the room and find him literally scaling the thing like a monkey, looking for a treasured volume he wants to reread. I yell at him about all sorts of things, but never about that. And what you see in that picture has much to do with my 5 reasons for being conflicted about the Seuss news.
1. His bookcases are a large part of what makes his room warm, cozy and inviting. The Kindle and the iPad are cute, but come on. They are not home.
2. Said bookshelves allow him to explore his literary options without ever shrieking "I can't get it to work!" from the other room.
3. He never looks at his bookshelves and says wistfully: "Why don't we have the one with apps?"
4. There are books on these shelves that were given to us by friends, who inscribed them with special messages to my son. There are books on these shelves that were mine as a child, and feature my attempts at penmanship, circa 1969, and even my siblings' circa 1957, 1961 and so on. There are books that we bought on trips to wonderful places where we passed some sweet hour in a bookstore, together. In short, these shelves have history. My Kindle's history is in bytes.
5. Books don't break and books don't have batteries that die. Books have been known to survive such assaults as a dip in the tub, dirty sticky fingers and spilled chocolate milk. And someday, my grandchildren may run their hands over the crayon scrawls on the inside cover of Astrid Lindgren's "The Fox and the Tomten" and say "Did Grandma write this?" And they will know, even if I'm gone, that once upon a time, I was there, loving this book too.
Bing: More on e-readers
We're betting yes
He was 74
Seamus Heaney, billed as "Ireland's foremost poet" and Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1995, passed away Friday in a Dublin hospital at the age of 74. The AP (via Huffington Post) reports that the author had been recuperating from a stroke since 2006, though no other immediate details were available.
In addition to his Nobel Prize, Heaney penned 13 collections of poetry, two plays, four prose works focused on the process and craft of poetry, among other literary contributions. Heaney was the third Irishman to win the Nobel Prize, along with William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett, putting him in obviously excellent (and beloved) company.
Born in Northern Ireland, Heaney eventually settled in the Republic of Ireland, and was considered a son of the entire island, and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny commented on his passing: "We are blessed to call Seamus Heaney our own and thankful for the gift of him in our national life...There are no words to describe adequately our nation's and poetry's grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney."
Heaney's work was long preoccupied with his homeland, and the various themes of his poems centered on a rural upbringing, mortality, the beauty of the country, and its "troubles" (the long-running and often conflicts between the UK, of which Northern Ireland is a part, and the independent Republic of Ireland).
Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, along with their children Christopher, Michael, and Catherine.