05 August 2012

Sorry Please Thank You (Charles Yu)

I've been wondering recently, mostly while looking at the big ol' stack of books I've finished and not written about, why I keep this blog at all--and, in a larger sense, why I maintain participation in online book culture, exemplified by Twitter, where most of my connections with authors, booksellers, and publishing types take place. I wholeheartedly agree with Jacob Silverman's recent Slate piece, "Against Enthusiasm," wherein he takes the Twitterati to task for their overwhelming niceness, though I'd add that the online book world is willing to be relentlessly negative within the very narrow band of Things Which Are Politically Offensive, the latest example of which was monotonous (albeit correct) fulmination against a stupid article asking whether recently deceased author Maeve Binchy would've been a better writer if she'd had kids. (Which I refuse to link to.)

Silverman uses my passing acquaintance Emma Straub as an illustration of this sunshine-and-puppies culture. Emma is one of the most genuine, sweetest people I've ever met, both in person and online, I loved her short story collection, and she bakes killer brownies. I totally wish we were best friends! And so, when I read her upcoming novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, and thought it was good but not great? I felt like history's greatest monster, for serious. And so I didn't mention the book on social media, and I'm not gonna give it a full review here. (Although I know exactly who I'm gonna sell it to--it makes me wish I still worked at Watermark, because I know a bunch of regulars there who will love it.)

Silverman's essay, and Washington Post book editor Ron Charles's brilliant response, helped focus the reasons I choose to write about books on the Internet. Sometimes, yeah, I just want to join a chorus of approbation, because some books are totally dang awesome and everyone should read them. In this register, I think I'd call myself a "reviewer," my primary concern being to tell you whether you'd like a book. Sometimes, though, I think a book doesn't live up to its reputation, and I want to say so--here, I'm trying to err on the side of "critic," pointing out problems of prose and narrative. I like to think usually I do both. Sometimes, too, I want to boost up older or obscure books that I think deserve a wider readership. And sometimes my friends write books, and I want to support them.

My enterprise, then, is a different animal from a lot of other, far more popular and influential writers and bloggers. And while I will continue to be periodically incredibly jealous, because I am a human being and thus really want people to like me and tell me I'm good at things, I will also strive continually to accept that my willingness to be unenthusiastic, and my total lack of skill at self-promotion, mean I'll never be Internet Book World Famous.

All that said, this post is ostensibly about Charles Yu's short story collection Sorry Please Thank You. Which falls under the category of "totally dang awesome"--if you're at all interested in well-written speculative fiction (and if you aren't, WHY AREN'T YOU YOU MANIAC), you should pick this up, as well as Yu's debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. The one thing I'd like to add to the general thumbs-up is to link Yu's name with that of the reigning queen of Spec Fic With Heart, Connie Willis. The best stories here--"Standard Loneliness Package" and "Hero Absorbs Major Damage"--mix emotional depth with sci-fi imagination and humor in a way that immediately reminds me of some of my Willis favorites, like "At the Rialto" or "Time Out." Fans of either of these authors would do well to check out t'other.

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