17 November 2013

Winner of the National Book Award (Jincy Willett)

I picked up Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award used at KC's Prospero's Books, cause it was across the street from the Indian restaurant we were meeting relocated NYC friends for one of the best brunches I've ever had. Merciful Zeus, it's good. Heartbreaking and terrifying and utterly, completely hilarious.

The setup could easily make for the dourest of Important Literary Novels (you know, the kind that actually win the National Book Award): it's the story of the inseparable lives of twins Dorcas and Abby Mather, one spinster librarian, one overweight sexpot, and the latter's operatic and abusive marriage to novelist Conrad Lowe--which ends in his death at her hands. Most of the novel is flashback, as Dorcas hunkers down in her library during a spectacular storm, reading the true-crime account of Abby's life and crime . . . correcting as necessary.

Dorcas is a clear-eyed, cynical narrator, and it's her Saharan wit that makes this tragic tale into a comic delight. She's eschewed sex for a lifelong love of books, and her descriptions of the bookish soul made me proclaim "YES EXACTLY" out loud multiple times. (There's a whole paean to reading Nancy Drew and world fairytales as a child that I could've written.) Willett's sharp eye for the excesses of literary culture is on display here too, as in her most recent novel, Amy Falls Down, one of my faves of the year.

And here's where I stop talking and just quote:
  • "Nobody appreciates the horror of a good book dying on the wrong shelf."
  • "Guy gleamed with sweat, as though mere existence on the material plane were physically exhausting."
  • [A blurb on Abby's bio]: "...you will weep, you will tremble, you will cheer, and yes, you will laugh...incredible, horrifying, nauseating, and, ultimately, life-affirming and empowering. Abby Mather's triumph is our triumph.--Victoria Fracas, author of Rape, Rape, Rape
  • "New Yorkers genuinely have no curiosity. They don't want to know. New Englanders do, but they'll be damned if they'll ask."
  • "How well do you remember that, say, six-year-old six-hundred-pager the Times assured you was destined to  become a classic? You know. The 'monumental work of fiction' that you were supposed to run, not walk, to the nearest bookstore to purchase, the book that was going to change your life, that you must read this year if you read nothing else...Winner of the National Book Award. You remember. Handleman's Jest. Parameters & Palimpsests. The Holocaust Imbroglio. We sell these babies for fifty cents apiece, or try to, seven years after they come out. We sell them because nobody has checked them out for four years."
And my absolute favorite paragraph, which encapsulates my experience with reading better than I've ever been able to:
Reading was not an escape for her, any more that it is for me. It was an aspect of direct experience. She distinguished, of course, between the fictional world and the real one, in which she had to prepare dinners and so on. Still, for us, the fictional world was an extension of the real, and in no way a substitute for it, or refuge from it. Any more than sleeping is a substitute for waking.
(Parting words: two fantastic essays by Ron Hogan on criticism also made me proclaim "YES EXACTLY" a few times this week. He puts forth the notion that book critics err when they start to believe they can judge a work's intrinsic worth, suggesting the humble but still valuable alternative that I've been trying to do all along: "Instead of saying 'This and only this is how fiction should be done!' we can say 'This is a way of doing fiction that works for me,' and if we can work past that level to 'And here’s what I’ve figured out about why it works for me,' even better." Good stuff.)

03 November 2013

Scrambling up-to-date.

I'm not gonna make you listen to my excuses, because snoozers. Let's just get to the good stuff.

First, a handful of comics:
  • The second volume of Saga (Brian K. Vaughan/ Fiona Staples) is every bit as marvelous as the first, and I'm just leaving it at that. You should all be reading it.
  • Superhero-wise, Chris insisted I'd like Flashpoint (Geoff Johns/ Andy Kubert), and indeed! The Flash is my favorite character in the DC Animated Universe, cause he's such a goofball--this story's quite different, but it's gritty without being too gritty for my taste (*cough Frank Miller cough*), an AU where Barry Allen (The Flash's forensic scientist alter ego) wakes up in a world consumed by the war between the Amazons and the Atlanteans, his old friends scattered and changed, many beyond recognition. There's the parallel-worlds fun of matching up the new characters with the familiar ones; my favorite of these was the reimagining of Captain Marvel as a ragtag bunch of teens, each possessing one of Shazam's powers. And I'm a sucker for time-travel narratives, the more twisty the better.
  • And since I've read and loved all of Joe Hill's prose-only fiction, I wanted to add his just-completed comics series, Locke & Key, a try. I didn't dislike it--Hill continues to be my favorite modern horror writer--but I found myself wishing it was a novel; all Gabriel Rodriguez's dudes have really big chins and I found that super distracting. (I know, I'm not very good at reading comics.)
And some books without pictures!
  • Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is nineteenth-century horror in microcosm: come for the deals with the Devil and some frowny-face-earning sexism and class snobbery...stay for the titular evil arachnid literally bursting out of someone's face in gloriously florid detail. So worth it.
  • And for my feelings on Catherynne M. Valente's astonishing The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, I shall refer you to my prior gushing over the series. These are seriously among the best books for children I've ever, ever read. No, scratch that, they are among the best books period I have ever read. This one ends on a cliffhanger, which usually annoys me--but in this case, it just means there's more to come. I am already breathless with anticipation.

(FTC disclaimer: I received free copies of  The Black Spider and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two from NYRB Classics and Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan Books for Children, in exchange for honest reviews.)
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