Monday, September 21, 2009
Last week was a wild one in the world of books (as wild as the publishing world gets). A new memoir by Ted Kennedy AND Dan Brown's latest book came out. Capping the week's end was Oprah latest (and newly revived) Book Club pick, a short story collection from Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan. But last week may not be an anomaly in the fall publishing season. According to one of my favorite book sources, Lucia Silva from The Book Works in Del Mar, this fall is one of the richest seasons in memory. Many of the biggest names in contemporary fiction and non-fiction will be publishing new works, such as Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, John Irving, Alice Munro, Richard Powers, Nicholson Baker...the list keeps going! With such looming bounty, we decided to talk books this week on Culture Lust. Some of my contributors will make recommendations, and we'll devote an hour to books on These Days (WED at 10am). If any of you are out buying "The Lost Symbol," I want you to have a list of alternate options to balance out your reading and shopping bag (no judgment there, I swear). We'll start with what I've read in the last couple of months. Hopefully there's a little something for everyone by week's end. If you have any good book suggestions, leave them in the comments section below. We'd love to hear from you!
"A Gate at The Stairs" by Lorrie Moore
You'll see this book recommended on Culture Lust more then once this week, and it's worth repeating. I loved almost everything about this book. Tassie Keltjin is our narrator, a 20-year-old Midwesterner who leaves the family farm to go to college. She takes a nanny job with a sophisticated, yuppie couple who have adopted an African-American child. Through the beautifully rendered microcosm of Tassie's world, Moore manages to address broader themes like post-9/11 anxiety, the war in Iraq, family, race, class, and incredible loss. Moore is often called a writer's writer and it's easy to see why. Her prose is observant and thoughtful, and so witty. There's a clever trope in the book that allows Moore to comment on race in contemporary America. There are also multiple pages devoted to her obvious love of words, especially the names of food or paint colors. My copy now has many a dog-eared page, so I can reread particular passages – a telling sign!
"Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill
This book won the 2009 Pen/Faulkner Award, but what likely sealed its popularity was President Obama's endorsement (he admitted to reading it over the summer). Set in New York City shortly after 9/11, "Netherland" follows the experiences of a lonely ex-pat European who befriends a charming Trinidadian and fellow cricket lover. Lots of cricket talk in the book, and not knowing much about the game, I'm now eager to commit an entire day (they last forever) to a match. If you think the book sounds boring, I promise you it isn't. "Netherland" is so charged with the energy of New York after 9/11 and particularly with the contemporary immigrant experience. O'Neill's novel is being compared to "The Great Gatsby," and I can see it, especially in Chuck, the dreamer from Trinidad, and the Gatsby stand-in. But parts of it reminded me of John Dos Passos' "U.S.A. Trilogy," in the way that it seems to capture the social and political landscape of this particular moment in history.
I first saw the work of this graphic novelist when he did the album art for Aimee Mann's "Lost in Space." Seth (pen name of Gregory Gallant) was at Comic-Con this year and I went to the Drawn and Quarterly booth to see him. I wasn't able to wait in line for his signing, but I picked up this book, his first graphic novel. I love the artwork more than anything else – a style defined by thick, black inked lines and panels awash in twilight blue. The story is semi-autobigraphical; that of a melancholy, but dapper Canadian named Seth who searches for more information on an obscure New Yorker cartoonist from the 1940s. It's a great introduction to graphic novels, cartooning history and jargon, and to Seth's work. He's blown up in recent years, with work in published in the New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Atlantic.
"The God of War" by Marisa Silver
One of my many obsessions is the Salton Sea and the forgotten communities surrounding it. Even if you don't have my fascination with the area, I think you'll find this coming-of-age story totally engrossing. "The God of War" is set in the late 70s in Bombay Beach, a poor, isolated community on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Protagonist Ares Ramirez is 12 years old and lives in a trailer with his mother and 6-year-old brother Malcolm, who has mental disabilities. Ares is angry with his mother for her free-spirited parenting and blames himself for his brother's condition. All the while, he's trying to grow up in this unforgiving landscape, contending with violence, drugs, and a peculiar brand of teenage boredom playing out against the spare desert. I suppose it's not all that different from the teenage boredom of say, Nebraska and Wyoming, where you can see for miles and the days seem to last forever. I loved these characters and Silver's treatment of the awful beauty of the region.
"Imperial" Photographs by William Vollmann
The Salton Sea and its greater home, the Imperial Valley, is a photographer's dream, and author William Vollmann took both pen and camera to the valley for close to 10 years. The result is a coffee-table book of photography and a 1300-page, non-fiction work, both bearing the title "Imperial." You may know Vollmann as the author of "Europe Central," or his many other books, or as a National Book Award winner, or as a frequent contributor to McSweeney's, The Believer, and various other pubs. He has a huge cult following and is known for full immersion into the worlds he documents. Turns out, Vollman's also a really good photographer (and thoughtful about it)! "Imperial," the non-fiction book, stares at me from my bookshelf, taking up the entire span of the shelf it's so thick. Until I can tackle its many mysteries, I'm content with seeing this desert/border region through his camera's eye. I especially like Vollmann's portraits (see left).
Check back every day this week for more recommendations and books-related coverage!