Tag Archives: retrospective

It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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