Monthly Archives: January 2011

List Thursdays: Top 15 Authors of Influence

I’m cheating a little this week in the essence of being tardy and wanting to keep up [?] with my website. So this week, I stole a small activity from Facebook and reposted it here. However, it is fun to do at home. If you haven’t done it yet, post them here in the comments section!

The Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.)

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1. David Foster Wallace

2. Hunter S. Thompson

3. Chuck Palahniuk

4. Haruki Murakami

5. Amy Hempel

6. Raymond Carver

7. Bret Easton Ellis

8. Thomas Pynchon

9. John Barth

10. Adam Levin

11. Cormac McCarthy

12. Don Delillo

13. Zadie Smith

14. Philip Roth

15. Rick Moody

 

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List Thursdays: Top 10 Most Anticipated Books for 2011

Descriptions pilfered from TheMillions.com article of 76 books, I pared it down.

10 – While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Not to mention that simply, it’s Kurt Vonnegut.

9 – Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia! builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola.

8 – When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.”

7 – The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40″ list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently.

6 – Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.”

5 – All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet.   We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review.

4 – The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate.

3 – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play onOrwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.”

2 – Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion.

1 – The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: No shock here. When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so.

Honorable mentions:
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker
The Great Night by Chris Adrian
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

List Thursday FYI:

It’s coming soon…

S.F.W. — Wellman: A Review

S.F.W.S.F.W. by Andrew Wellman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came highly recommended by my buddy, David Atkinson. It definitely didn’t disappoint. What I perhaps liked most about this (unfinished) novel [longish novella?] was Wellman’s excellent use of vernacular; the voice truly pops! The pace is fast and keeps the reader engaged, not to mention that the narrator, Cliff Spab, is witty as hell!

Despite being written in 1990, the book doesn’t feel dated at all. Once I finished the book, I sat back and thought to myself how I couldn’t believe that it was written by a 22-year-old. Wellman’s absurdist social commentary is fantastic and feels like that of a writer twice his age. SFW reminds me a lot of a brighter Bret Easton Ellis novel, not quite as bleak and gritty, but with all of the hip energy and power of voice.

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Deus Ex Machina — Altschul: A Review

Deus Ex MachinaDeus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Reprinted from my review at TheRumpus.net) I always like to get my overall impressions of a book out of the way at the beginning in case someone is too impatient to read my entire review. With that said, I really liked Andrew Foster Altschul’s Deus Ex Machina. You should probably go pick yourself up a copy.

On the surface, the novel is about reality television, specifically, a show that is ostensibly a cross between The Truman Show and Survivor (with aspects of nearly every other reality show ever created sprinkled in). But to say that the novel is about “a reality show on a distant island” would be to miss the multiple wonderfully-textured layers Altschul has weaved in so skillfully within the books tightly-packed 203 pages.

It is possible that I read far more into the novel that what is actually there, but once you dig underneath the ten original contestants, the desert island, the extreme focus on ratings and the shady powers-that-be who run the show, you see that the book is really a metaphor for humanity in its own postmodern and metafictional way. The opening perfectly captures the feel and pacing of the novel to come:

On the island they talk about everything, but they don’t talk about love. Conversation is constant, even after the day’s tasks are done, goals achieved, challenges met. Once they’ve banked the fire, posted a sentry, checked the stars one last time for messages, they collapse into a makeshift yurt… huddle together for warmth—that’s when the whispers arise: Did you hear something? Do you think they’ve forgotten us? I’m cold. How did this happen? Don’t come near me. What in god’s name is that smell?

The contestants are called the Deserted, people who are left to fend for themselves on an island essentially miles from anywhere. There is no production intervention allowed. The cameras roll and whatever happens will happen. Free will is stressed, essential. It allows for the contestants to “reveal their true selves up close” unimpeded by a higher power—I’m sorry, I mean the show’s producers.

I personally read the island as a metaphor for Earth. A hunk of rock displaced in the middle of nowhere, lacking any possibility for outside help or intervention. The network executives are a laissez faire God and the Deserted are us, human beings. It’s the evolution of reality TV—televolution.

But forget the question, “what is reality TV?” Altschul forces us to ask ourselves, “what is reality?” Sections in the book depict the show’s production staff putting on acts between themselves and afterwards, asking each other how they didin the event that production footage gets spliced in with footage of the Deserted. Everything is filmed, everything is fair game. But does any of it matter?

Altschul wants to show us ourselves through the lens of the Deserted. He also wants to show us that we are always acting, performing for an audience we can’t exactly name. To be accepted, to gain adoration on the island is priority number one. Well, perhaps it’s priority number two — making sure we win (at whatever) is priority number one. To be disliked, to be not accepted is death. To be voted off the island, to be exiled, is even worse. So then who are we? According to Altschul, we are the person who’s “playing ourselves,” not unlike a video game player controlling an avatar, a virtual likeness of themselves—or rather, who they’d like to be—in The Sims. At some point, I also realized I haven’t been talking only about the book in this review. It seems Altschul has struck his intended chord.

What had once been about free will, about the unpredictable ways of the heart, all of it had been overridden by the show with its one, paramount directive: Crush everything in your path… Theories have been breaking down recently, and the producer can no longer afford to let events be shaped by other hands.

Oddly, the producer is the character who experiences the most cognitive dissonance about intervening at all. Even when characters are itching themselves mad or suffering the effects of worms burrowing deep into their nervous system, the producer resists pushing a button to ease the contestants suffering. Because then it wouldn’t be organic. Because then it wouldn’t be real. Only then you find yourself in a circular conundrum asking yourself what real even means. In this way, the character of the producer is very much like our Sims player, or maybe that is precisely what he’s trying not to be.

So that’s it in a very complex and not at all tidy nutshell (seeing as how I despise spoilers, there of course will be none). The book does a number of things well, but particularly, it makes the reader question his or her priorities. It makes the reader question themselves, who they are? and what, exactly, is real? if anything is at all. When all is said and done, who are you performing for?

View all my reviews

Hear the Wind Sing — Murakami: A Review

Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat, #1)Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked having the opportunity to read this though I’ve gotta say, not very much happens, especially compared to his later work. Hear the Wind Sing is the product of a great [young] author stretching his authorial legs and seeing what he can do with a pen and paper. I am, however, anxious to start Pinball, 1973 now!

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The Author and The Rumpus Go Together like Peas and Carrots

Mega apologies for my absence! I’ve been in Nebraska City getting schooled on the finer aspects of the writing craft, low-residency MFA style!– or something to that effect.

Fear not, however (providing you were in the first place)! I’ll be back with regular posts List Thursdays and all news literary- and publishing-related.

First order of business, check out the interview I did with Ralph Steadman on The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2011/01/an-afternoon-with-ralph-steadman/ This was written in a frantic frame of mind once I realized I spent four hours with the man and didn’t even bring a friggin’ tape recorder!

And lastly, for this semester, I’ll be working with the wonderful and lovely Amy Hassinger (of Nina Adolescence fame). It’s my last one at the University of Nebraska so I want to make it count. Thesis, put your party pants on because I came to dance!

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