Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Maps and Legends

I read Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends for my book club. I'm a big Chabon fan so I was quite sure I'd like it. By rather amazing coincidence, he was speaking at the uni where I work so I got to see him read just a few weeks before we met to discuss. That was a real treat.

Maps and Legends is a collection of essays/book reviews. For the most part, it's a defense of genre writing. Chabon rights about how, with some exceptions, genre writing (sci-fi, fantasy, etc) is not considered high literature. This is expressed on the best-seller lists and in the book stores, where there's a "literature" section, and then all those "other" sections. As a writer and a reader, Chabon's sensitive to that literal and figurative delegation to the "other". It is just those books that walk on the boundaries (he argues) that make for the most interesting stories anyway.

I'm a big believer that, at most, we should have a fiction and a non-fiction section in our book stores and libraries (but I'm leaning toward alphabetical by author across the board) so I really loved seeing my opinion so neatly matched with one of my favorite writers. Reading Maps and Legends was a lot like watching a Woody Allen film - it made me feel really smart when I got all his literary references (I'm a terrible elitist at heart, it's true).

What I didn't like about the book was how, in seeking to elevate genre stories, he found it necessary to denigrate a lot of contemporary fiction, which I also happen to enjoy. He also revealed something else that I won't go into for fear of ruining the book for you. However... at our book club we talked about how this book is so ... specialized, aggravating, elitist ... that there are basically no people that we'd recommend it to. For me, there were two people, and I've already told them. But, I'll leave you with one of the lovely bits, to spark your interest:
In the meantime, I had begun to publish stories of my own, stories, in some cases, about fathers who disappointed their sons. The fathers in these stories were golem-fathers. I wove alphabetical spells around them, and breathed life into them, and they got up and walked out into the world and caused trouble and embarrassment for the small man of the flesh and blood in whose image they had been cast. Or maybe it was I who was the golem, my father's goldem, animated by the enchantment of the narratives and lies, then rising up until I posed a danger to him and all the unlikely things that he, strangely enough, believed in.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Only read about 50 pages of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto before I gave up on it. It's one of those interminably dull books sort of in the style of Never Let Me Go. These days if something even slightly reminds me of that book I can barely stand it.

Despite being about a Japanese transvestite that's suddenly murdered, I found Kitchen extremely boring. Yoshimoto's prose is sparse, to say the least.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Like Life

Like Life is a book of short stories by Lorrie Moore - a friend introduced me to her work a few years ago with her book, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Moore is a very funny and poetic writer. Her short stories remind me of M. Atwood (she's that good!)

In one story, the main character is a poet who writes poems about "whores" - Moore intersperses the story with poems:
They come down to the truckers
or the truckers go up
to the rooms with the curtains pell-mell.
They truck down for the fuckers
or else they fuck up
in the Pepsi Have a Pepsi Hotel.

Later she writes:
She should stay here with him, unorphan him with love's unorphaning, live wise and simple in a world monstrous enough for years of whores and death, and poems of whores and death so monstrous how could one live in it at all? One had to build shelters. One had to make pockets and live inside them. She should live where there were trees. She should live where there were birds. No bird, no tree had ever made her unhappy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf caught my eye in the library. I read the first 150 pages before I admitted to myself that it was going nowhere. It's hard for me to quit on a book.

Kahf's novel is about a woman who grows up in a small Muslim community in Indiana. I just love reading a book about a place I know, but it really read like the author had little familiarity with Indiana. The characters in the book are Islamic fundamentalists who run into oppression both mild and extreme in Indiana (and the US). Maybe it's because I grew up there, but the Indiana bits really stuck out for me as clumsy and a bit hackneyed. For a book about, essentially, diaspora, the sense of place was simply not real for me.

The book kind of rambles along, occasionally switching POV and timeframe rather inexplicably. I started skimming ahead and saw that the main character went through a couple of dramatic (and cliched) changes until, it appeared, she finally became a racecar driver in the Indy 500?

I was also disappointed because some rituals of culture the characters express were unfamiliar to me and there was little explanation - I know the book's not meant to be a 101-Introduction to Islam, but I think greater detail would have enhanced the story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Michael Chabon & Amazon Fail

By amazing coincidence, Michael Chabon was speaking at Northwestern tonight - just two weeks before our book club for Maps and Legends! Naturally I told everyone I arranged it personally, and they all believed me for approximately 30 seconds on accounta the previous surprise of free books. Ha ha!

He read a very long essay about his love of Edgar Allen Poe, including his childhood fantasy that he was, in fact, the reincarnation of Poe. It was the perfect reading for me because he spoke at length about the themes in Maps and Legends. He has a rather elegant allegory for how literature and reading and writing are geographical - I won't try to summarize that - and his love for what we call genre fiction today - Poe being a perfect example.

I wish he had spoken more extemporaneously rather than reading from his script - alas, few great writers are great readers, but, it was very exciting to see him and to be part of the audience.

It's also quite a coincidence that I saw him today, as all this Amazon shit is hitting the fan. If you ask me, Amazon's practicing a particularly nasty brand of censorship based on genre profiling - namely anything "they" (but who are they?) consider GLBT, erotic or romantic, with some pretty shocking inclusions like Lady Chatterly's Lover and, one of my personal faves, Bastard Out of Carolina. (Oh no they didn't!) Amazon is hiding the books' true sales rank, thus making it less likely they'll appear in searches.

After the shitstorm of controversy, especially on the blogs and apparently Twitter (thus possibly proving that Twitter might be worthwhile), Amazon is claiming that the whole thing is a "glitch", which sounds like total bullshit to me. But, why are they doing this? Supposedly they're not run by religious fundamentalists, which this whole things reeks of - then why?

Anywho, I'm doing a bit of Amazon searching myself to see what I find. So far:

  • a search for "homosexuality" - first result? A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality O.M.G.
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover is currently ranked 33,508 - D.H. Lawrence hasn't had this much press since...
  • A biography of Ellen Degeneres by Lisa Iannucci does not have a ranking

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Body of Evidence

Patricia Cornwell first popped on my radar in 2002ish when I saw her on cable tv talking about her book, Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper -- Case Closed. It caught my attention because she was talking about how everybody has this kind of fascination with Jack the Ripper, turning him into legend, while the people he killed are practically forgotten in the gory, bloody footnotes. Then she proceeded to delve right into those details. I changed the channel.

A few years later I was taking a class on 19th & 20th c. British Art and studying an artist named Walter Sickert when I remembered Cornwell. Sickert, like most Londonerns, was fascinated with Jack the Ripper and painting a series sort of based on them. Sickert's the person Cornwell decided was Jack the Ripper. My professor was sort of loathe to even acknowledge this, but anywho said her conclusion is largely disputed, at least by art historians.

What was rather interesting to me, just having had read The Big Sleep, was how influential that book was the contemporary detective novel. And now I've just started reading Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, which is so far a sort of defense of "genre" writing, or, in this case, the murder mystery/detective novel, and Cornwell's book def. fits the description of the very "entertainment" (read: not high-literature) book that Chabon is defending. Maybe. I'm only on like page 20.

Anyway, just to prove how low-brow and Chandler-like it is, I'll leave you with this quote from Body of Evidence, which was at once my favorite bit and the most ridiculous:

[...] I stared out at the day, and never had the colors been so bright or the sun shone so magnificently on the tiny offshore island of Key West. I would buy a condo where Mark and I would make love for the rest of our lives. I would ride a bicycle for the first time since I was a child, take up tennis again, and quit smoking. [...] I would watch sunlight dance of the sea and say prayers to a woman named Beryl Madison whose terrible death had given new meaning to my life and taught me to love again.