Posts tagged lit
Posts tagged lit
First off, my newest Crimewave column ran in the National Post last weekend, featuring reviews of new novels by Barbara Fradkin, Robin Spano, and my colleague in crime reviewing, the Toronto Star’s Jack Batten, bringing back his wisecracking detective Crang after more than twenty years away.
Also this past weekend, I wrote about my high school experience with THE GREAT GATSBY, involving a vivid dream and 19th Century Italian Opera, for Medium.
Finally, I am spending more time building up Domestic Suspense, the companion website to the anthology, and expect to post even less here as a result. (Then again…) The response to TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES was already amazing but then this arrived in my editor’s email inbox Monday morning:
“This fascinating collection of stories represents a long-overdue tribute to mystery writers who laid the foundation for those of us working in the field today. The remarkable range and complexity of these tales is a humbling reminder of the importance of the trailblazers whose work established psychological suspense as the backbone of crime writing both then and now.” -= Sue Grafton
If I didn’t already think Grafton was cool — and I have, for a long time — now it’s moved into a whole new stratosphere.
It’s finally here, a little later than expected with a few loose strands: the companion website to my forthcoming anthology TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES. Check out DomesticSuspense.com for regular anecdotes, links, images, features, and eventually, longer-form pieces on the fourteen authors in the anthology, as well as their peers and more contemporary practitioners of the genre. Please let me know what you think — and if anyone can track down a good photo of Helen Nielsen, I’d be ever grateful. Apparently, that’s something of a holy grail.
It will be awfully hard to top this photo of @faustfatale’s beloved Boston Terrier, Butch, reading an advance copy of TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES.
On Twitter yesterday I went on about how New Adult is a bona fide category now — so much so that there’s a way to report them specifically at Publishers Marketplace — but that it won’t be “real” to me unless literary novels by men that qualify actually get classified that way. And since everyone loves lists, here’s my working tally of recent or forthcoming novels by men that absolutely, positively, fit the New Adult bill, which revolves around college-age and twenty-somethings (basically, 26ish and under) trying to make sense of life, romance, identity, etc.
Chad Harbach, THE ART OF FIELDING (it’s a campus novel)
Brian Kimberling, SNAPPER (bildungsroman with birdwatching)
Kristopher Jansma, THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS and the just-sold THE MURPHYS’ ODYSSEY (the latter book described as “about a group of twenty-something friends in New York, known collectively as “The Murphys,” whose lives are forever altered by a tragic and unexpected event” — of course it’s NA)
Tao Lin, pretty much everything including the forthcoming TAIPEI
Lev Grossman, THE MAGICIANS, THE MAGICIAN KING, and the final book in the trilogy (Harry Potter for grownups is so obviously New Adult)
Benjamin Nugent, GOOD KIDS
Benjamin Kunkel, INDECISION
Ben Lerner, LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION
Ben Dolnick, ZOOLOGY and the forthcoming AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING (wait, what’s with the New Adult Bens?!)
Keith Gessen, ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN (maybe n+1 should really be called NA+1?)
Gabriel Roth, THE UNKNOWNS
Robin Sloan, MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE
Matt Ruff, THE FOOL ON THE HILL
Adam Thirwell, POLITICS
Michael Dahlie, THE END OF YOUTH
I know I am forgetting a bunch, but I can always add other suggestions.
ETA: I see there’s some confusion here. The point is that New Adult, as it’s used now, is decidedly *not* male - it’s books by women, largely for women, that mix young adult and romance. Current exemplar authors: Jamie McGuire, Cara Cammack, Abbi Glines, Colleen Hoover, Jennfer Armentrout writing as J. Lynn. So that creates needless ghetto-ization the same way that women who wrote “chick lit” were marginalized but men who essentially wrote “boy lit” were held up as literary bastions. It’s a double standard that needs to be demolished.
E.L. Konigsburg died on April 19, a week after suffering a serious stroke, at the age of 83. Most people, rightly, point to FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER as a major turning point in their reading lives. But the book of hers I keep thinking about, since I read it about two dozen times as a kid, was ABOUT THE B’NAI BAGELS, published two years after MIXED UP FILES (which won the Newbery, while the other book Konigsburg published in 1967, JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY, AND ME, ELIZABETH, was awarded the Newbery Honor, a pretty stunning feat for any children’s novelist, let alone a debut one.)
Then I remembered that years ago I wrote a piece about B’NAI BAGELS that made the rounds of a few places but never really found a home, so I’ll reprint it here. Keep in mind I wrote the first draft in 2006, revised again in 2007, and as such some of the references are dated to those years. But the points about the book still stand.
If you belong to my generation or a later one, chances are the spiritual aspect of bar or bat mitzvah – a ritual that’s only about a century old as we know it — has become muffled in the move towards increasingly elaborate, ostentatious, and style-conscious celebrations. One need only to leaf through the pages of the coffee-table smash Bar Mitzvah Disco, saturated with photo after photo of hair horrors, fashion disasters, cheesy DJs and other examples of conspicuous consumption ramped up beyond control. Or check out the movie Keeping up with the Steins, where a high-powered Hollywood agent is determined to do absolutely everything to give his awkward nephew the best bar mitzvah ever – even though the kid might actually want anything but.
But even if bar mitzvah culture has become less about what it means to become an adult in the eyes of God and more about keeping up with the Jewish Joneses, as Andrew Oppenheimer argues in his recent book Thirteen and a Day, the quest to stay au courant has become marked by an overwhelming sense of sameness. I saw this myself last fall when I attended the bat mitzvah of my cousin Miriam. And while her recitation of the Haftorah was marked with meaning and her speech contained a surprising number of original thoughts, once the party began, it was as if I’d time-warped back to the early 90s. The tweeners were hoofing it up on the dance floor to Michael Jackson and Dee-lite, completely oblivious to the fact that these had been the songs of my own simcha-going youth.
A few months later I brought this dichotomy up to my cousin (who seemed to get it) then asked her how all the other bar and bat mitzvahs she’d attended since – almost thirty – had been like. “They all kind of blend into each other,” she said, and I nodded in recognition, because I’d gone through the same thing when I’d been her age. Saturday after Saturday, I’d attend what was officially a different bar or bat mitzvah, but when the same shul, the same caterers and the same format was involved for each one, it was difficult to separate them out individually. They all became a blur.
But that sense of blurring and sameness could be flipped around. If there are commonalities to each simcha, surely there must be a universality that exists from one age group to another? This idea, as well as my cousin’s experiences, was uppermost in my mind upon rereading E.L Konigsburg’s About the B’Nai Bagels, the novel she wrote immediately after the Newbery Award-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Because the book was written over thirty-five years ago, it would have been reasonable to expect it to date quickly, to be completely out of touch with how current twelve and thirteen-year-olds think today. But it didn’t take long to be proven wrong, to find that the book’s protagonist, Mark Setzer, went through almost the same experiences as my cousin had, and that B’Nai Bagels’s 1960s perspective is still relevant in a world where glitz and glamour, technology and popularity contests have become an almost integral part of this particular rite of passage.
From the get-go, Konigsburg establishes Mark as a fairly nice kid growing up in the suburbs of Long Island with his family. His mother, Bessie, seems to be a stereotypic Jewish mother, but Mark’s attitude towards her is a more three-dimensional mixture of love and slight befuddlement. His brother, Spencer, is almost of another generation, as he commutes to NYU every day and revels in his proto-slackerdom, fighting with Bessie, and alternating between leaving his younger brother alone and giving him advice. But Mark’s family becomes especially pivotal in this, the summer of his thirteenth year, when his mother ends up as manager and his brother the coach of his Little League baseball team (nicknamed the B’Nai Bagels as a riff on B’Nai Brith.) That spells bad news for Mark, because how much more embarrassing can it get to have half your family run your baseball team?
It’s only one of several reasonably heavy conflicts Mark faces over the course of the book, including the loss of his best friend Herschel Miller to the obsequious mama’s boy Barry Jacobs, a taste of the forbidden when a copy of Playgirl (a stand-in for Playboy, not the real magazine introduced in the 1970s), a mild flirtation with the irrepressible (and non-Jewish) Cookie, sister to two of Mark’s teammates, and a brush with casual anti-Semitic slurs hurled by a different teammate. But key to the heart of About the B’nai Bagels is how all such events ultimately center on Mark’s preparations for his bar-mitzvah in the fall, and what the event ultimately means to him. While others might be borderline neurotic or sweat bullets, Mark has a rather matter-of-fact take on the proceedings:
…last year, I was seriously in the business of being Hebrew, being that I was twelve years old and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah marks the time you become thirteen years old and can participate as an adult in all the religious services at the synagogue. Preparing for it starts when a guy is eight years old, but the volume is kept soft and low and part-time. Then, BLAST – the commercial comes on when you reach the age of twelve. And in your twelfth year you become devoted. Devoted to lessons on Sunday morning until it becomes Sunday afternoon, and afternoon lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays. Afternoons until 7:00 at night. According to my mother I was always about to be late for one or the other of those devotions.
It’s a revealing quote on several levels, most importantly because it offers insight into Mark’s personality. Unlike the other kids around him, who seem to hold bar mitzvah lessons in contempt, Mark actually takes them fairly seriously. He jokes around some, and occasionally irritates his teacher, but much of the time he treats Rabbi Hershfeld with respect and is given it back in return. And it’s the sort of attitude that’s been devalued, or at least de-emphasized, in favor of the flashy presentations that dot Bar Mitzvah Disco and its ilk.
Though Mark isn’t a do-gooder, like Barry, or a prankster, like some of the other kids on the team, he’s not averse to testing the boundaries of his Jewish faith and practice. Though Konigsburg isn’t explicit about the Setzers’ level of religiosity, Mark’s expected to attend synagogue every Saturday and be traditional. So his desire to keep pace with his non-Jewish baseball teammates induces him to cut Saturday morning services in favor of the neighborhood baseball diamond, where he gets a crash course in multiculturalism and interfaith conflicts. When the slur is invoked, Mark’s first reaction is to sweep it under the rug and keep the peace, but his growing feeling that this is too incendiary to be ignored incites him to make an important decision about his own level of involvement with Judaism – and make his bar mitzvah summer that much more meaningful.
As it turns out, the summer’s growing pains and coming-of-age ingredients leads to a fall bar mitzvah that proceeds smoothly and without a hitch. Mark does not become a man in the literal sense, or become one overnight, but his experiences with the B’Nai Bagels taught him a lot about fending for himself and forging his own individual path:
[being a man] is a becoming; becoming more yourself, your own kind of tone deaf, center-fielder, son, brother, friend, Bagel. And only some of it happens on official time plus family time. A lot of it happens being alone. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes a guy a whole Little League Season.
That sense of evolution, coming to terms with the outside world and the one existing inside, is what gives About the B’Nai Bagels its power and its ability to resonate with future generations. The stylistic trappings may differ, the social pressures may be more increased, but there’s enough honest emotion and real motivation to appeal to even the most jaded bar or bar mitzvah student.
I profiled Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Jon Klassen for Maclean’s in last week’s issue, since he is Canadian, and his newest project is illustrating Lemony Snicket’s new picture book THE DARK. Since it was a short piece there was, as is habitual, a lot that was left out, which is kind of a shame since Klassen was very enjoyable to talk with and we touched on a number of different subjects, including illustration technique, the differences between solo projects like THIS IS NOT MY HAT (which won the Caldecott in January) and THE DARK or Mac Barnett’s EXTRA YARN (which got the silver medal at the same ceremony.)
But one thing I knew I had to ask Klassen about was this particular image, which is his depiction of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. He laughed when I brought it up, as it was his one and only attempt at fan art. It’s not one of these things I’m generally good at, and I’m not sure why I felt the need, ” Klassen said. “The book doesn’t need illustration. But when I was done reading [THE ROAD] I wanted to spend more time with it. I hadn’t read anything quite like that before. The book meant so much to me because it was so graphically done. [McCarthy] did the same thing I try to do, which is to show emotion and not describe it. That was such a big deal. With illustration it’s held that the more graphic, the less emotionally impactful you can be. But the book works because of the graphic-ness.”
Ingeborg Day in 1962, age 21. Two decades later, after publishing NINE AND A HALF WEEKS (as Elizabeth McNeill) and GHOST WALTZ (under her real name) she looked more like this.
“At 26, she already is a sought-after spokesman for symposia on the state of American literature.”
— the Bridgeport Post, January 1965. A pretty stellar group of women, too.
My newest Crimewave column appeared in the National Post this Easter Weekend, with an accidental focus on second books in series by Robert Rotenberg, Stephen Legault, and Owen Laukkanen. His thriller CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, which brings back his duo of Minnesota state police detective Kirk Stevens and FBI special agent Carla Windermere, was the standout. (I also profiled Laukkanen for Maclean’s in advance of his debut a year or so ago.)
Speaking of Maclean’s, I reviewed three books for them in March: Becky Masterman’s first crime novel RAGE AGAINST THE DYING, and the memoirs WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Domenica Ruta and WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala. All of them are well worth reading for wildly divergent reasons.
Originally, Renata Adler’s SPEEDBOAT and PITCH DARK were supposed to be reissued in February 2012 by Melville House (which had published Adler’s book about the Bush/Gore Supreme Court ruling, IRREPARABLE HARM in 2004, a publishing relationship that likely came about after Dennis Loy Johnson interviewed her sympathetically for Salon in 2000, before he moved away from journalism into book publishing.) These are the covers Melville House art director Christopher Brian King designed for the books. What a contrast from what ended up on the covers of the NYRB Classics editions!
And as for why Adler switched publishing houses after the reissues were so far along in production, that’s shrouded in some mystery, too. But as the Bilderberg book cancellation and the complicated publishing history of her 2001 essay collection CANARIES IN THE MINESHAFT — originally titled POLITICS, originally set for publication in the late 1980s, with galleys circulating, before Adler backed out at the last possible moment — she had the last word on deciding when her books would appear in public.