Monday, October 28, 2013

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark

I’ve read Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark in three different incarnations. First, as a pretty rough manuscript--the letters weren’t annotated and there weren’t that many photographs.  The second time was after editorial put the final touches on it and included some great photos by Johnny Dark. I actually hadn’t planned on reading the finished book, but when I held it in my hands and starting looking at what the designer had put together, I just couldn’t help myself. The end pages, the touches of color introducing each letter, and the accompanying copy of the actual handwritten letters are perfection.  I have never had the experience of following a book this closely; it’s been incredible watching this book take shape and I honestly think it is the best trade book the University of Texas Press has done.

Sam,  Johnny, and Jesse
(Shepard's son) mid 1980's
This book of letters, which covers the forty plus year friendship of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard and his best friend Johnny Dark (best friend and father in law of sorts, Sam marries Dark’s stepdaughter). I often describe this book as a coming of age story about two men who never really grew up.  While the letters back and forth are sometimes light-hearted, the bulk of these are introspective and brutally honest. Each man searching for some sort of success and happiness, whether it is love, work, or a sense of freedom. Shepard, to put it mildly, is a complicated man. It’s his drinking that costs him most, but when you get a glimpse of his relationship with his father, Shepard seems to be waiting for some sort of acknowledgement and love from his father, but it’s elusive. It’s clear that this is what has shaped the man he is. It’s a heartbreaker.

Jesse and Sam 1979
The letters begin just as Shepard is ramping up a career as a playwright, they cover his affair (and life long friendship) with Patti Smith, and then his decision to leave his wife and child and begin a relationship with Jessica Lange. The letters are current; in fact they not only cover Shepard’s painful separation and later divorce from Jessica Lange, but the emotional toll putting the book together takes on Shepard and his friendship with Dark. Take a look at the book trailer here.

One last thing; a documentary called Shepard and Dark was filmed while Sam and Johnny were putting the book together. It’s a fascinating look at these two vastly different but forever-linked men. I highly recommend it. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Betting on Nobel, 2013

The Nobel Prize for Literature is expected to be announced on Thursday, so it's time to place your bets. While the politics of the Nobel Prize don't necessarily mean much (as I mentioned last year here), the people in Book Land need something to debate, so here we are. The good people at Ladbrokes, everyone's favorite literary odds maker, have once again taken bets on who will win the Nobel Prize, so let's break down the favorites.

Haruki Murakami: 5/2 odds
Why this pick would be okay: No one has done more to popularize Japanese fiction worldwide, and Murakami's books already have tons of fans. His last book, 1Q84, provided the name inspiration for my brother's cat. What? Isn't that enough reason to give the guy an award? The cat? How about that 1Q84 sold 1,000,000 in its first week on sale in Japan and was a bestseller in the US too? I root for the booksellers here...and it doesn't hurt that I work for Murakami's US publisher, Knopf. Also, Murakami has a new novel that is being translated right now and will go on sale in 2014. The Nobel committee seems to favor writers who are still publishing works.
Where to start reading: Norwegian Wood is the book that made Murakami famous, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle moved him to the forefront of Japanese literary authors. It's more indicative of the surrealistic elements found in the author's work.

Grammy Munro
Liz's fictitious grandmother
Alice Munro: 4/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: First, a Canadian has never won the Nobel Prize, but there are several celebrated Canadian authors reaching that age where lifetime achievement awards are handed out. Alice Munro, along with being my imaginary grandmother (but with less racism than the real version), recently announced that she's retiring from writing, and in the last two weeks she's climbed the Ladbrokes odds list. And Grammy Munro writes short stories, a genre typically unheralded by prizes. An award for Grams would be a validation of the format as equally worthy as longer fiction and poetry. Alice Munro plumbs the humanity of her characters. Right, and she's also published by my company, so she's obviously worthy.
Where to start reading: Since Munro writes stories, diving in isn't a time commitment. One place to start would be Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, one of my favorite collections.

Svetlana Aleksijevitj: 6/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Yeah, I have no idea who this is. Hang on a second.... ah. Svetlana is an investigative journalist from Belarus, according to my sources (Wikipedia; if it's good enough for Jane Goodall to plagiarize, it's good enough for this blog). She writes about Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and women. I've heard of one of her books, Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of my favorite nuclear meltdown. This pick would be okay because I'd have the joy of hearing booksellers try to say her name. That's one of the secret joys of the Nobel.
Where to start reading:  Maybe Voices from Chernobyl since it's at least available in English?

Joyce Carol Oates: 8/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: I'm not going to lie. If JCO wins, I'm doing the butt dance of joy. The prolific US writer could break the 20 year drought on American winners, and though she's starting to get up there in years, she hasn't really slowed in her writing routine. No one embodies the idea of a writer in my mind like Joyce Carol Oates. She actually might just keel over if she stopped writing. Recently she's taken to Twitter, too, and her tweets are more interesting than yours. Not debatable. She's won the National Book Award, won or been nominated for every major award, and has spent a life trying to uncover America the violent, be it boxing, serial killing, abducting, family dysfunctioning, celebrity chasing/obsessing. Oh, and she wrote my favorite short story ever, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," a story that totally warped my perspective of the world from a very early age.
Where to start reading: The aforementioned short story is a quick treat and captures Oates's need to dig out the darkness from American culture. I also loved Blonde, her novel about Marilyn Monroe. Or check out Black Water, the fictional exploration of the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident.

Peter Nadas: 8/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: The world should be exposed to Hungarian literature? Peter Nadas writes a lot about death, and who doesn't love that? His parents were Communists in Nazi-occupied Budapest, which is intriguing at the very least? Not going to lie--I've never read Peter Nadas.
Where to start reading: I'm not sure, but since I own A Book of Memories, since it's about 1,000 pages long, and since it's compared to Proust, that seems like an excellent place to immerse yourself. Tell me how it is.

Jon Fosse... probably
no relation to Bob Fosse.
Jon Fosse: 9/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Jon Fosse is a Norwegian author and playwright. I' nothing. I'm sure he's terrific. He's written many, many plays, as well as novels and essays. I am starting a rumor that he's related to Bob Fosse.
Where to start reading: Seriously, no idea. This is the type of pick that makes booksellers crazy because no one will rush right out to scoop up the numerous dramatic works of a Norwegian guy.
Ko Un...probably no relation to
Kim Jong Un.

Ko Un: 10/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Ko Un is a South Korean poet who has been among the Nobel favorites for many years now. I am not a poetry reader, but I like the idea of Ko Un winning because it would undoubtedly piss off Kim Jong Un, and I love the North Korean crazy.
Where to start reading: It's poetry. You should know better than to look to us for advice on poetry.

Ngugi wa Thiog'o
Ngugi wa Thiog'o: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Ngugi! Love this guy. He's a Kenyan writer who started a new form of
theater in Kenya back in the 70's which encouraged spontaneity and audience participation. It was a huge success until the authoritarian regime in Kenya decided that Ngugi should be imprisoned for his outspoken questioning of convention. While he was in prison, he wrote a novel on prison toilet paper. How can the Nobel ignore a political prisoner? Ngugi fled to the US after he was released from the clink and has taught at places like Yale and written a pooty load of books.
Where to start reading: Go with his memoir, In the House of the Interpreter or his novel Wizard of the Crow.
Thomas Pynchon (?)

Thomas Pynchon: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Meh. I'm not a big Thomas Pynchon fan. However, I would LOVE to see the media storm around a Pynchon victory. Would the famous recluse show up? I'd watch that show.
Where to start reading: The Crying of Lot 49, since it isn't Gravity's Rainbow? Or just watch The Simpsons episode in which cartoon Thomas Pynchon wears a paper bag over his head.

Assia Djebar
Assia Djebar: 12/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Assia Djebar is an Algerian writer known for her feminist stance and whose work often deals with women's struggles. This would be an interesting pick politically since she's a Muslim woman who's been outspoken about women's rights and education. She was one of only two girls to attend her grade school. Assia Djebar is a pen name she adopted because she feared her father's disapproval (her real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayen). She now teaches in the US.
Where to start reading: I am not sure, but I want to read this woman's biography if one exists. She seems like a bad ass.

Adonis: 14/1 odds
Why this pick would be okay: Adonis is a Syrian poet, and the Nobel committee loves to play political games with the prize. He's been an odds favorite for a bunch of years, so it may just be a matter of time before he wins the prize. He too was imprisoned for a period, and when released moved to Beirut, until the Lebanese civil war drove him to Paris.
Where to start reading: It's poetry. Have I mentioned that I gave up poetry for Lent? Poetry readers are pretentious. Yeah, I'm stereotyping.

Other favorites include Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Javier Marias, Margaret Atwood.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Trust me, I understand the weirdness in discussing The Circle, the new novel by Dave Eggers, on the internet. The whole book is a cautionary tale about the perils of the digital world. Part dystopian near future story, part psychological horror, part loss of innocence tale, Eggers has written a deceptively simple story that offers lots of material to ponder.

Dave Eggers
Here's the premise: Mae Holland is a 20 something with no real direction in her life. Her college friend Annie snagged a great job at the Circle, though, and uses her connections to land Mae a job in the customer service department. What is the Circle? Imagine a mix of Facebook and Google, an online world that increasingly dominates both internet and real world experiences. All of one's online interactions are connected through the Circle. Watch TV online on the Circle. Chat with friends on the Circle. Rate your favorite restaurants on the Circle. It's easy. It's convenient. It's fun.

Mae is a bit of a climber and naive, and she's easily influenced. Through a series of successes and a brush with authorities, Mae becomes the guinea pig for being "transparent," the Circle's attempt to document a person's entire life. Imagine if politicians can't have secret meetings with lobbyists. No corruption, no government shutdowns, no lies. No missing children, because children will have chips implanted, and the world is a safer place. Right? Mae lives on the Circle campus, and though going transparent has led to some awkward moments (walking in on her parents' lovemaking is a zillion times worse when four million people are watching along with you), she's become the face of the Circle.

Maybe Big Brother is already watching....
Eggers is making a statement about the lack of privacy in the digital world. In the world of the Circle, can not go kayaking on the bay without the whole world commenting on it, watching it, rating it, taking a survey about it. How much is too much? Eggers isn't arguing against the digital world, but he is making the case for sanity. Grumpy Cat is okay, but bullying people to death (literally) is too much. And the world Eggers paints isn't so far fetched. Just today, there was an article--which of course I read online--about the proposed walled-in community being developed for Facebook programmers. It's a brave new world.