Monday, October 31, 2011
Thursday, October 27, 2011
In the last several weeks, I have had the great opportunity to meet both Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead. Chabon was in Oxford, speaking to the University of Mississippi, and held a very informal book signing at Off Square books. I say informal because for a writer of his stature, there was very little pomp surrounding the event. He walked into the store, sat down, and started singing books. There were only about 15 or so people waiting for him; I assumed quite a few more people would be at his speaking event, which was held at the university later that evening. What was really nice about this event was how relaxed it was. I was second in line. He signed my prized copy of Kavalier and Clay, I told him how much I loved his work, and he posed for a picture with me. I am not much for revealing my heart to my heroes (I am not one for “This books saved my life!”), so when it was over, I really felt the hour and ten-minute drive had been worth it.
The Colson Whitehead event was a nice surprise. Michael and I were in NYC, and stopped in to a small independent bookstore for a cup of coffee. I went on a book-buying splurge, spending well over $100 in twenty minutes. One of the six books I picked up was Whitehead’s newest novel, Zone One. I have only read The Intuitionist by Whitehead, but love his musings in Twitter. It just so happened that Whitehead was speaking that evening, and we made plans to come back to be apart of it. He talked for near twenty minutes, giving an acerbic speech that touched on his career, his thin-walled home, and Donna Summer’s “McAuthur Park.” He answered a few questions, and then got to signing. The line moved fast, and I got my copy autographed quickly. It was a simple event, and perfect for the evening.
Haruki Murakami's magnum opus 1Q84 hits shelves this week. It is undoubtedly the literary event of the year, and clocking it at nearly 1,000 pages, one that I am sure will initially sell well, but not one people will actually read from cover to cover. It is a publishing rule of thumb that short stories and long books aren’t great cash cows. People seem like their books to be 300-500 pages, something that can be read in more than a day but less than a week. Investing in a long book can be a scary thing. Reading a novel is like taking in a roommate; you don’t want to just let anyone roam around your dirty closets and liqueur cabinet. A long novel takes time, takes effort, requires stamina, and if you have been burned once before (It, anyone?), not something you are eager to have in bed with you. I sat for hours reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, determined to finish it, even in the face of a boredom so profound I thought of reading Dickens. I made it through the novel’s famously torturous fourth section, which reads like a police report. After each gruesome murder I became desensitized to the violence Bolano, and shifted into a restless mode, scanning each page for plot, skipping over the repetitive parts. Could I skip ahead and if I do can does that count as finishing the novel? Would I be missing something? Would anyone really care? As I asked myself these questions, I realized the end of my reading experience with Bolano was near. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I finished the section, put the book down, and started something else. So, I am interested: What long or “tough” books have you attempted but never finished? When do you realize it is time to give up?
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
In Sunday’s “Food and Drink” edition of the New York Times Magazine, book critic Dwight Garner was posed with the question “What is the best novel about food?” His answer? The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola. The novel, he says, “makes you feel as if Mario Batali had taken his sensual Manhattan emporium, Eataly, and tipped it sideways, slowly burying you under its contents.” (He also cited the saffron stew preparation in Ian McEwan’s Saturday.) But even though food is such an important part of our daily lives, it does not always make for the stuff of exciting literature. Great fiction writing about food is a rare thing: a writer not only needs to convincingly describe the dish he or she is writing about, but also tie that dish into the larger narrative in a meaningful way. For my money, the “Best Food Novel” prize goes to Michael Cunningham’s 1993 novel The Hours. In that novel (which I will admit I admired but did not love), the character of Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949 Los Angeles, begins an ordinary yet important day of her life by trying to bake a birthday cake for her young son, Richie. The cake itself is nothing special, just a white-cake with vanilla frosting. But for Laura, who alternates between resentment towards her husband and son for taking her away from her morning’s reading, and a fierce, all-consuming love for the two men who fill her life, the cake is to be proof to herself that she is the wife and mother she is supposed to be. This is high-stakes cake-baking, and Laura’s preparation takes on the suspense of a thriller. Cunningham writes these scenes with such intensity that the reader cannot help but sympathize with Laura, even as she contemplates abandoning her life all together. The book’s themes of depression and isolation make it clear what success or failure of the cake will eventually mean for Laura’s life; even though we realize that her problems won’t go away with a perfect cake, we can’t help but wish for Laura’s even hand as she ices the frosting over it. In the hands of a skillful writer such as Cunningham, a simple act of baking takes on the full weight of a lifetime of questioned decisions and eventual disappointments.