Saturday, August 30, 2014

F is for....

Here's the premise: a father has three sons, two (twins) by one woman and a third by another. The boys all live with their moms but he dutifully takes them on outings on the weekends. One Saturday they visit a hypnotist's show, and since the father insists that he can't be hypnotized, of course he is selected to participate. In the course of the show, the father reveals that he's always wanted to write professionally, but familial obligations have held him back. After the show ends and the boys and father are driving home, the father (who may or may not still be hypnotized) basically drops off the boys at one house and disappears from their lives to pursue his writing career. Thus begins the incredible new novel by Daniel Kehlmann, simply titled F.

F is one of those books I can't get out of my head. The novel follows the lives of the three sons and father, all of whom struggle with issues of identity and destiny as they move through the world. That sentence just made it sound tedious, though. I should mention now that it's not weighed down by excruciating, soul searching, stream of consciousness, meandering weirdness that burdens some literary fiction. F is fun.

The father, Arthur, does indeed become a famous writer, but at what cost?

Son #1: Martin's goal is to become the world champion Rubik's Cube master and can solve a Rubik's Cube in under a minute. While this feat is his life's ambition, though, he finds himself living as a priest...who doesn't believe in God.

Son #2: Eric becomes a financier and makes a huge amount of money, but then watches as his questionable decisions threaten disaster and his family unravels.

Son #3: An artist, Ivan should have had his own successful career as a world renowned painter, but instead he becomes a forger, creating the paintings that make another man famous and for whom he acts as agent.

Daniel Kehlmann
F stands for family, faith, fate, fortune, forgery, fraud. It's at times funny, at times sad, at times tragic, all the time great reading. I love this book. It's the kind of amazing that compels me to go back and read everything Daniel Kehlmann has written because the guy is incredible.

A note about the translator: Daniel Kehlmann is a German writer and this novel was originally written in German. It does not suffer the fate of some translated works, seeming removed from an English-reading audience. I have never actually met Carol Brown Janeway, though she is an editor for Knopf and Pantheon (two of the publishers I represent). I have heard her present titles on the sales conference preparation CD's we receive, though, and the woman comes across sort of like the college professor whose course you audit because you just want to learn everything she has to say even though you didn't think you were interested in the topic. There is no finer translator of German to English that Janeway--you'd never know that the book was written in another language originally, which is the mark of a perfect translation. F is flawless.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear blog readers,

I am writing to you on behalf of Dear Committee Members, the new novel by Julie Schumacher. Simpsons Ever Marathon). I'm guessing that some of you made the same questionable life choices I made and carry similar grudges, so you'll probably enjoy reading Professor Jason Fitger's letters.
Since you have shown a remarkable tendency toward self-abuse by continuing to visit this awful blog, I can only assume that an epistolary novel comprised of various letters of recommendation from a college creative writing professor might appeal to your masochistic tendencies. It's not like you have anything better to do (and yes, I'm including the Every

If you ever want to know what academic department ranks lowest in the academia hierarchy, look no further than Creative Writing. As a graduate of a small, nerdy, liberal arts university, I would like to point out that my alma mater didn't even offer Creative Writing, so I pursued the comparable majors of English and History (with a hell of a lot of Women's Studies to guarantee that I could enter the working world with no job skills whatsoever). As an English major, I looked down upon the Business majors and Pre-Med losers. As a History major, the Social Sciences were one step above Kinesiology. I take my intellectual integrity does this novel's letter-writing professor. Is he pissed that the Economics Department's building was remodeled with what he assumes are massage chairs and chandeliers while Creative Writing has leaky walls? Yes, yes he is. Let him write a few dozen letters to the administration about this injustice.

Yeah, the building looks cool and
historic, but I'm not kidding, my
office was a converted bathroom.
(Mood-Bridwell Hall,
Southwestern University)
(Now I think I should mention that as the English Department Student Assistant, my work study job for one year, my office was literally a former bathroom. Also, since my job basically consisted of making mimeograph copies for one of the five professors--and she insisted on mimeographs rather than Xerox copies--about twice a semester, I actually performed about 5 hours of work the whole year. Oh, and there were TWO English Department Student Assistants and I was considered "the good one." I think that meant that I figured out the mimeograph machine before March. Anyway, what was I talking about?)

The book. Jason Fitger is pissed off that he's in a dying department that receives no respect from his peers. He's pissed off that his ex-wife also works at the college and she's sharing her opinions about him with the rest of the faculty and administration. Perhaps he shouldn't have drawn on his own experiences for writing material. He's pissed off that his newest novel tanked and his writing career is on the downward slide. Another complaint: the Creative Writing Department Chair is a Sociology professor. The outrage! Jason just wants to enjoy one success this year, and he thinks this hope resides with his star pupil's retelling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. Though he keeps writing letters of recommendation, none of the writing workshops or agents or editors see the book's brilliance. On top of these aggravations, Jason continues to compose an unending number of letters of recommendation for every damn student who crossed into his classroom. Is he honest in his letters? Yes, yes he is.
Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger is hilarious in his passive aggressive behavior and surprisingly tender and vulnerable. He's a guy who's been kicked in the balls a few too many times, and who brought those metaphorical testicle punts on himself. This short novel is charming and witty, and while the character might be a jerk at times, he comes across as believably human. So, to the lousy former classmates and professors at my alma mater, I implore you to read this book. To those of you nerds who condescended to the inarticulate fools in your classes, this is your book. For people who are their own worst enemies, this book will hit home (and by "home" I mean "testicles").

Seriously, how is Communications even a major? And have you ever heard Philosophy majors whine about their reading load of 20 pages per night? English majors read whole novels! Tom Jones is about 900 pages long and most of those pages are tedious and repetitive. (I was incredibly popular in college.)



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I just spent a week in New York at sales conference, which is always an adventure. The best part of the New York sales conference? There's a night when we dine with a group of editors. The absolute biggest fans of books are their editors. It's book nerd heaven. So, here's a post dedicated to a book that an editor, Diana Miller of Knopf, sent me with a "You have to read this!" note about nine months ago. Have I eagerly waited most of a year to begin pimping this novel? YES.

Richard Flanagan is an Australian (Tasmanian) writer with some serious writer credentials. His novel Gould's Book of Fish launched him into the literary world (not to mention utilized beautiful printing techniques for book-as-object enthusiasts). When I discovered that Diana had acquired his latest novel for Knopf, "batshit giddy" was one way to describe my excitement. This novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is, simply, a modern classic. It's incredible.

Here's the premise: a doctor named Dorrigo Evans is captured by the Japanese while fighting for Australia in World War II. He's sent to a POW camp and as the officer and doctor among the POW's, he bears a great weight for the welfare of the soldiers. Also, this particular group of POW's is responsible for constructing the Burma Thailand railroad for the Japanese. If you saw The Bridge on the River Kwai, you know a version of this railroad's story. This was a railroad impossible to build, built by men in the worst physical conditions imaginable. It's known as the Death Railway. Dorrigo is a doctor without medical supplies of any kind, trying to keep men alive as they are wasting away (at best) or rotting from wounds (more likely) or beaten/executed. The Japanese work quotas ramp up even as the strength of the laborers decays. You know those gross scenes of Civil War battle hospitals? Imagine those conditions, but with a significant language/cultural barrier and tropical conditions and extra brutality. It's gripping. It's harrowing.

This isn't just another novel about World War II, though. It's also Dorrigo's love story from both before and after the war. It's a story about trust and betrayal and humanity. It's a book that's special because the Japanese, while captors and brutal, aren't reduced to just being monsters. Like the POW's, they too are men under extreme pressure in impossible circumstances. The title The Narrow Road to the Deep North tips to what Flanagan accomplishes here. This novel shares its name with a collection of poetry by Basho, the most famous haiku poet of Japan's Edo period (and in general). Basho gave up all possessions and traveled throughout the country to experience and capture the world in verse. Like Basho, Flanagan's characters are off the grid and reduced to basic experiences, and like Basho, Flanagan is able to capture majesty in all things.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a huge accomplishment. The author's father was a POW in the labor camp in which he framed his story, and this book shows profound respect for all of its players. When I read it those many months ago, I sent an email to a colleague calling this book "super important" and "reads like a classic, and a much older book (but it a timeless, not tired, way)." It's a book that Flanagan has been working toward throughout his career. It's a book on the Man Booker Prize longlist presently and considered a favorite. It's a war story you haven't read before. It's one of the best books of the year, period. It's a must read.