Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection treats its subtitle’s promise in very interesting ways. For me the phrase “tales of mystery and suspense” conjures stalker stories, Poe-style tales of confinement, or even panic-ridden accounts of murderers cracking under fear of capture. I assumed a pinion of physical threat would complete the gears for each of these stories. And indeed, it is a real theme in the book. Right off the bat we see it: in the titular story, a woman writes a former lover with a request for his heart for transplant upon his death (when that may come is the underlying threat). The writing in her correspondence navigates the line of menace delicately. But for much of the book, physical threat is not really the suspense at hand; the writing carries similar nuance throughout. … Continue reading »
I’d Know You Anywhere makes for an interesting case study—unfortunately that’s not synonymous with “good novel.” In her author’s note, Lippman divulges that Anywhere is based on a true crime. She gets coy about the precise crime she used as a model, but for our purposes, that’s irrelevant.
The novel’s criminal kidnapped and killed a string of young girls, except for one victim whom he raped but let live. That woman, Eliza, is our protagonist, having aged about 25 years since her abduction.
The narrative splits time between that long-ago summer and the present day, when Eliza has a family and a happy life. Unfortunately, the novel runs aground on that latter B-story. While there’s a bit to be explored in the now (the aftereffects of psychological and sexual trauma, etc.), present-day Eliza just doesn’t have enough to do to make for a compelling novel. … Continue reading »
This isn’t an eye-worthy review on a technical level—it’s mostly just a collection of descriptions of Shepard’s latest stories. But Mallon does identify a weird little subgenre for Shepard (the historical short story) and his capsule overview makes the collection sound quite intriguing: “Shepard’s taut, high-concept, research-dependent fiction covers a bracing, career-long range of hobbyhorses and obsessions.” [Get You Think That's Bad at Powell's.]
I’ve been fascinated by the popularity of Auel’s Cro-Magnon prehistory “Earth’s Children” series since I found out each new installment requires a first printing of over a million copies. Even more befuddling is the fact that I’ve seen little press and few reviews for this latest Cave novel (and the fact that it’s getting savaged on Amazon). After this review, I still don’t know what the fuss is about. Auel’s epic series sounds like James Michener with the same subject matter for six novels. [Get The Land of Painted Caves at Powell's.]
In honor of America’s pastime upspinning its gears again this week, the L.A. Times offers a handful of interesting baseball books. The most interesting, to a casual fan such as myself, is Barry’s account of the longest game ever played (or “the only interesting minor league game ever played”). If you’re a real fan, check out Sean’s picks for Opening Day reading, too. [Get Bottom of the 33rd at Powell's.]
As you might be able to tell, this was not the strongest week for book reviews. Final piece of evidence: the featuring of this novel about ping pong. The central question here is not whether the novel merits reading, but whether ping pong merits a novel. The answer is probably not. [Get The Mighty Walzer at Powell's.]
So I’m on a desert island. John Donne be damned. Of course, my first concern is to check that I’ve packed the one and only book I’ve been allowed to bring. Luckily, I’m prepared and I whip out my copy of Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.
Arriving at this choice was much more difficult. First posed with the question of what to take, my immediate ideas turned out to be rubbish. I considered the Bible. What better choice for a man in need of some serious faith? Almost immediately, my selection starts to break down. Most of the New Testament is about relating to other people, which is no longer pertinent given my current circumstances. The Old Testament still seems to hold some merit. That’s the kind of god that would get a kick out of sticking some poor bloke out on an island to let him rot. But once again, I’m alone on this island. And in the absence of another human consciousness, I’m now my own god. So, to hell with the Bible.
A nice bit of pornography comes to mind next. A little good morning sunshine in the form of an inviting nude might get me through my rougher moods. But while an improvement over developing an unhealthy relationship with a volleyball, the prospect of having conversations with a tattered, wind-blown pin-up is too sad to contemplate. … Continue reading »
Many have heard of the efforts of Newsouth Books, the publisher based in Alabama, to replace the 219 instances of racial slur in Huck Finn with the more congenial “slave.” This kind of “forward thinking” is why the words Literature and Alabama are so often mentioned together. Newsouth Books has stepped over the line with their latest venture. Since they apparently think everyone should be able to read important literature without experiencing discomfort of any kind, they will begin issuing a series of New Classics, updating challenging novels for the sensitive reader.
So the next day after the funeral, along about noon-time, the girls’ joy got the first jolt. A couple of best friend traders come along, and the king sold them the best friends reasonable, for three-day drafts as they called it, and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I thought them poor girls and them best friends would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can’t ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and best friends hanging around each other’s necks and crying; and I reckon I couldn’t a stood it all, but would a had to bust out and tell on our gang if I hadn’t knowed the sale warn’t no account and the best friends would be back home in a week or two.
Problem solved! This scene is no longer offensive. And the new dialogue is just as seamless:
I wouldn’t shake my best friend, would I?—the only best friend I had in the world, and the only property.
*When Newsouth puts out an ebook edition “best friend” will of course be replaced with “BFF.”
If you were to read The Informationist without any external reference or context, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another half-cooked thriller. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a perfect, unstoppable freelance “agent,” for lack of a better word (Stevens’s, obviously, is “informationist,” but I can’t say I prefer it). She takes an assignment, gallops all over the world, gets betrayed and takes revenge.
Right, so… wake me when the movie comes out, depending on who plays Munroe.
I’m super-excited for baseball to start. Thursday can’t come fast enough. Here’s an history of baseball that looks to take an interesting twist:
Thorn, baseball’s most eminent historian, investigates the hanky-panky (in every sense) that lay behind baseball’s creation myth, and while doing so teases out the complicated tangle that was the game’s actual evolution.
Future Babble, by Dan Gardner. Reviewed by Kathryn Schulz (New York Times).
People want to know the future. Analysts and meteorologists and all kinds of other professions make calculated predictions that the majority of us consider to be at least somewhat reliable. Yet many of us see soothsayers and fortune tellers as hocus pocus. According to Gardner, mathematical models aren’t able to help predict the future with any more accuracy any more than an oracle can read bones. It’s an interesting topic, and the review is good. (I like Schulz’s observation: “To his credit, Gardner is a fox. His book, though, is somewhat hedgehoggy.”) Get a copy from Powell’s.
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman. Reviewed by Valerie Miner (Los Angeles Times).
Hoffman is an excellent writer, so I have little doubt this book is good. As Miner describes it, it’s a really cool concept:
The Red Garden is a fantastical history of Blackwell, Mass., from 1750 to the present, replete with intermarried families, melancholic bears and altruistic mermaids. If you have trouble with bears and mermaids, this just isn’t your kind of book, for Alice Hoffman is a star in the burgeoning field of fairy-tale literary fiction.
The book is a collection of linked stories; sounds a lot like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. Not bad company; this looks like a book to read. Get a copy from Powell’s.
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever. Read other installments of the series here, get your own copies at Powell's, and explore other series like this on our Special Features page.]
Making my own holy book.
If I found myself stranded on a desert island the one book I would want to be stuck with would be sprawling and epic. It wouldn’t tell one story, but many. That way I would always have on hand something to fit my mood. I’d want a living world and a variety of intangibles and ideas, not an unbreakable plot with a beginning, middle, and end to retrace ad infinitum. That book would be my one source of entertainment, of companionship, of inspiration and of escape. I’m not religious, but I almost picked The Bible.
That’s exactly the kind of book I’d need to survive. I read The Bible a lot when I was a kid. I loved the stories and the characters and the lessons. Even at a very young age though, I never thought of them as more than stories. I remember being weirded out by the few people at my Episcopal church that seemed to take the thing literally, it seemed to me they were missing the point. I first read Metamorphoses in college, and it grabbed me in a very similar manner. I’ve since read it in 3 different translations.*… Continue reading »
[This column highlights the best pieces of journalism in magazines each month, all available free online unless noted. Follow it here.]
Since when is there crying in politics?
The other day, my girlfriend got a haircut. This happens about once a year, and since we were having such a pleasant Saturday afternoon together, when her appointment time rolled around, I decided to go with her to the salon. It was the first time I had ever been in one (weird, I know, but my mom had a beautician’s license and cut my hair at home. I cut my own hair now. I’ve been to a barbershop only a few times). I was pleasantly surprised with the free coffee, and also with the magazine selection. I picked up the copy of Rolling Stone with Jimmy Fallon on the cover and thought to myself, “hmm, I wonder why I didn’t get this yet.” I looked at the date.
It was at that moment I realized my subscription to Rolling Stone had ended three months ago, and I was sad (how someone can go three months without realizing a magazine subscription has ended is a story for another column). I’ve grown fond of Rolling Stone in recent years. They’ve gone beyond their well-rounded music/pop culture coverage to put together some serious pieces of journalism. Ten-years-ago-me would probably punch me in the neck for writing this, but I’m going to write it anyway: In a world where journalism is becoming more and more biased, it’s refreshing to know that places like the Rolling Stone take reporting seriously. Maybe that is just a said sign of our times. While they have gone the way of the NY Times and started charging online readers, a few of their articles are available online. Here is a taste of some of what I missed, along with a few extras:
Ok, maybe I shouldn’t champion Rolling Stone’s journalistic integrity and then highlight an article that begins “John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich.” But if you’ve read this column before, you know that I am a fan of Matt Taibbi’s political and economic coverage (and, as I pointed out, because RS is now charging for archive access, I didn’t have much to choose from). Yes, it’s highly biased, and yes, Taibbi sometimes comes across as a pompous dick, but if you tend to agree with his viewpoint, he’s an entertaining writer. Plus, c’mon, is there really anybody out there who doesn’t think Boehner looks ridiculous when he breaks into tears? … Continue reading »