Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

By Jess Walter
Harper. 352 pp. $25.99.

Jess Walters audacious new novel spans fifty years and two continents. It includes an excerpt from the unpublished memoir of one of the main characters, a movie pitch by another character, a chapter of a novel by a third, and part of a play. Does it sound like a train wreck of experimental/post-modern literature? Fortunately, it is far from that. These “experimental” elements are expertly woven into a more traditional, beautifully-told story. Far from detracting from the momentum and action of the story, they serve to give context to many of the events, as well as the motivations of the characters.

What are the events of the novel? That is a harder question. In 1962, Pasquale Tursi is a second- generation hotelier on the Ligurian Sea in Italy when an American actress arrives at his hotel. Dee Moray was working on the production of Cleopatra when she became “ill.” She is lethargic, nauseated and otherwise unwell. At first, Pasquale and others—even Dee herself—is told that she has cancer, but, in fact, a doctor was convinced to lie; the explanation turns out to much simpler: she's pregnant. Of course the question is: what was the purpose of this lie and who is behind it?

In present day Hollywood, Claire Silver, production assistant to no-longer-very-successful producer Michael Deane, is trying to leave for the day when she is confronted by two men: Pasquale and Shane Wheeler, an aspiring screenwriter. Both have one of Michael's business cards, which he signs and distributes with promises of potential future favors. Claire quickly deduces that Shane wants to pitch his movie, but what is Pasquale doing there? Simple: He fell in love with Dee during her stay at his penione and has now, years later, come to seek her out.

The novel primarily bounces back and forth between the two stories, but adds a few others along the way. In Italy, the reason behind the lie about Dee's condition is revealed. Although, some reviews have given away this “big reveal,” I will not do that. In retrospect, it should not have been as shocking to me as it was at the time; there were enough clues. Still, the discovery was too enjoyable to “spoil.” In Hollywood, Pasquale is able to give Claire some background on her boss; she had no clue that he had begun his career in the movies in publicity.

Walter's storytelling and prose alternates as the time periods alternate. The scenes in Italy are slow and descriptive; the scenes in Hollywood are faster paced, with action over language. Some of the best moments of the novel have Pasquale planning to carve tennis courts into the rock walls behind his hotel, merely so guests could play facing the sea; he doesn't consider the logistical complications of balls flying off the edge or the cost of building. He is wonderfully innocent, but still has a vision. Equally beautiful is when Pasquale takes Dee to an old machine gun turret on the cliffs above the sea, where soldiers painted pictures.

All of the characters in Beautiful Ruins are hiding something, whether they know it or not. Indeed, the novel is permeated in secrets and mystery. Walter's brilliance is that he is able to make use of these elements without them taking over. It is a page tuner, and yet you will want to pause to take in the beautiful writing. Furthermore, this is a story where characters matter most. And what a cast it is! Besides, Pasquale, Dee, Claire, Shane and Michael, there is also Alvis Bender, a novelist who returns to Italy year after year, ostensibly to work on a novel, but merely rewrites a single chapter again and again and his son Pat, a struggling punk-rocker. It is a joy to see how all of these disparate characters come together.

Beautiful Ruins is the best kind of summer read: intelligent, engaging, unexpected and just plain fun. It is part commentary on modern-day Hollywood and how movies get made; part love story; part mystery. Walter's makes use of non-traditional storytelling elements, but they never feel forced or like he is showing off. It's a masterful and satisfying novel.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rereading a Favorite Novel and Previewing a Fall Release

I rarely reread books. There are too many books that I want to read for the first time, mostly new fiction releases, but also books from the last 15 years that I didn’t read. Then there are many fiction “classics,” which as a history major in college and one-time law student (my secrets comes out!), I’ve never read. (I am slowly trying to read the ones which interest me most.) Further, despite focusing my squarely on fiction recently, I also love nonfiction. Add to all of this the fact that I read somewhat slowly, and I don’t feel like I can afford to reread! 

And still, revisiting a book can be rewarding. Many people say that you “learn” or “discover” something new every time you reread. This is certainly true. Still, when rereading a book that I once enjoyed, the biggest reward is, once again, appreciating specifically what made me love it in the first place. My latest reread that fits this criteria: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
There were a few reasons why I chose to reread Michael Chabon’s remarkable historical novel. One, amongst the Pulitzer Prize-winning books that I have read, it is one my favorites. Two, with no Pulitzer winner in fiction this year (if you haven’t heard about this see my post here), I wanted to read a “recent” winning book. Three, Chabon’s has a highly-anticipated new release—Telegraph Avenue – coming out in September, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with his most notable work.

As a history buff, I was quickly reminded of why I so enjoyed the novel in the first place. It is historical fiction at its best. Chabon places real people in plausible fictional situations. The protagonists encounter Al Smith as President of the company that owns Empire State Building, where their offices are housed; Salvador Dali, at a party full of celebrities, at a time when the Spanish artist was living in the U.S.; and Orson Wells, just before the premiere of Citizen Kane. Chabon captures American culture and life in the period just before WWII through the time just after. If the Depression is never fully confronted, it is because the protagonists rise above the tough economic times and are able to give the Depression-weary populace comic book heroes to divert their attention. 

Besides history, I loved how Chabon blends “obscure” topics like Jewish mysticism and comic books into a story in which you do not have to know about (or be interested in) either topic to appreciate. I’ve never read many comic books—frankly, I’ve never really cared for the “fantasy” worlds of superheroes—but I fully cared about the characters in the novel that spent their lives creating comic books. I may have even cared more during the reread than the first time around. I found this remarkable because, although I had forgotten many details, I remembered the broad contours of the story and the characters’ lives. I think that we normally care about characters when we do know what is going to happen, when we are living their lives with them.  If we know the eventual end, we are no longer living along with them. And yet it’s the sign of a talented storyteller when you are absorbed in a story, even when you know the outcome.  Even though I didn’t feel like I was experiencing the story for the first time, there was still a sense of anticipation. Part of this was a feeling of awe at the talent of Chabon.

Despite publishing three books since Kavalier and Clay, there is a valid argument that the upcoming Telegraph Avenue is his first traditionally published, full-length, “literary” novel since. The Final Solution was a short novella; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union verged on “genre” (an alternative history detective story); Gentlemen of the Road had been serialized before being published as a book.

Telegraph Avenue is a real street that runs between Oakland and Berkeley, and it seems that the story will take place primarily between these two cities. Set in 2004, it is contemporary, not historical and it seems to have a diverse cast of characters. (I have deduced this from a summary on Goodreads.) I have received a digital review copy, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I might post a teaser before September, but I will likely not post a full review until it is released. Still, it looks exciting, is getting a lot of good early buzz.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

News: Developments in the E-Book Pricing Lawsuits and Further Thoughts

There were new developments on Friday in the ongoing legal disputes over agency pricing. (If you don’t know the background of this dispute, see my post from last month here.) Sixteen states and the District of Columbia DC joined the fifteen states (and Puerto Rico) already accusing publishers of overcharging customers under the agency model. They also filed an amended complaint. (For those interested, that can be found here.)

This lawsuit by the states is separate from the pending action brought by the Department of Justice. The DOJ suit accused publishers of collusion in the establishment of agency pricing, while not taking issue with the pricing scheme itself. In fact, there seems to be a solid argument that under a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the agency pricing model is not illegal at all. (See information on the case Leegin, in my post from March anticipating the DOJ’s actions.) It is important to note that in the settlements signed by HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster shortly after the DOJ’s suit was filed last month, none of the companies had to pay any fines or restitution.

The original lawsuit by the states was filed the same day as the DOJ suit, and the same companies which settled with the DOJ also settled with the states. In the case of the state’s suit, the companies did pay fines and restitution. As it stands right now, two publishers—Penguin and Macmillan—along with Apple are fighting both the federal and the state lawsuits. 

From what I can tell, the companies may have an easier time beating back the state lawsuit. By accusing the companies of overcharging, the states are taking on the agency model itself, something that the DOJ chose not to do, possibly because of the precedent of Leegin.  Although, I am not fully informed on the legal definitions, the issue of collusion in the establishment of agency pricing, brought by the DOJ, seems to be an easier argument to win. Yet, in some ways, the collusion and overcharging arguments are bound together.  With amendments to their lawsuit yesterday, the states made public previously redacted information. The information seems to show that higher prices were the desired effect of agency pricing. There are some excerpts in this article from PaidContent, including an excerpt of a communication from Steve Jobs.

The communication from Jobs seems to shows that, in the publisher’s negotiations with Apple, both were trying to raise the price of e-books above the $9.99 price point that had been established by Amazon as the standard. (For hardcovers with a price range of $25.01-27.50, which represents most fiction, the suggested e-book price was $12.99.) Some might see that as a clear case of overcharging, but price doesn’t tell the whole story. When Amazon was charging $9.99, it was buying e-books under the wholesale model.  Furthermore, the $9.99 price point was likely a loss-leading price point. Publishers did not want Amazon to become essentially the “only” retailer for e-books through their ability to discount. Such power would allow Amazon to negotiate better terms for all books with publishers, leading to less revenue and eventually less ability to development content. Publishers were looking for a way to expand the number of retailers who could sell e-books, and to temper the power of Amazon. Apple was not willing to take a loss to match Amazon’s $9.99 price, and thus Apple and the publishers felt that agency pricing necessitated higher prices. If agency pricing itself is legal, which it seems to be, then higher prices under agency pricing should be legal as well. The only problem is if the agency model was established through collusion. 

This will likely be a lengthy process and I look forward to covering the issue more. This is a complicated issue and I make no claims to have gotten everything right. I welcome your comments.

Monday, April 23, 2012

News: World Book Night

Today is UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO established the day in 1995 to promote reading, publishing and copyright. (Although, it has been reported that the date was chosen partially because both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd in 1616, this may not be fully accurate, due to a discrepancy between the Gregorian vs. Julian calendars.) 

Today is also the first World Book Night. The goal of World Book Night is for avid readers to spread the love of reading to people who do not read often. It started in the UK last year, when a group approached authors and publishers about distributing books for free. Their theory was that if someone (even a stranger) personally handed a book to someone who seldom read saying, “I loved this book,” the other person might read it. Although last year’s giveaway did not occur on April 23rd, it was such a success that it has now spread to the U.S. and Germany, and has been moved to coincide with the UNESCO day.

In each country, volunteer “givers” signed up and chose a single book, which they had read and loved, from a preselected list. In the U.S., 25,000 “givers” will each be distributing 20 copies of their chosen book. The books include: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Bel Canto by Ann Pachett, Just Kids by Patti Smith and The Stand by Stephen King. In the UK, 20,000 people will be giving away 24 copies of their chosen book. The books include: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. (I was unable to find information on Germany.) In each country, givers were asked to distribute books within their community, but preferably not simply to friends. 

In all cases, the authors have graciously agreed to forgo royalties. Additionally, printing, binding and shipping services were all donated or offered at steep discounts. Each book was printed in a special World Book Night edition to publicize the event, as well as to help prevent resale. 

So, keep your eyes peeled tonight. You just might see someone by your subway station or in your local bar giving away books.

  I'll be giving out copies of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I chose this book because I love it, but also because, even though it was a Pulitzer-prize finalist in 1991, I thought it might be one of the less familiar books from the list. It is a collection of closely related short stories, but not a novel in stories. Still, all of the stories take place during or in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Although Tim O'Brien has written about his service in Vietnam as memoir, he has always been clear that this is a work of fiction. I also chose the collection because, although the title story has become very well known and has been anthologized many times, the other stories are as good, if not better. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guest Post: In Defense of the Pulitzer Board

Amy here. Again. Fulfilling my role of being contrary.

Everyone is up in arms about the no-award year for fiction. (And by everyone, I mean the industry as reported by the New York Times, Ann Patchett, and my husband. But that’s a start.)

We don’t know what happened –whether it was an intentional snub, or whether they simply couldn’t garner a majority. But either way, I have no problem with it. And here’s why:

No “Pulitzer book” was published this year.

What is a Pulitzer book? I don’t know that I could generate a precise definition, one that would include all the right books and exclude all the wrong ones. But here’s a start:

They are big, sweeping, ambitious books that tell the stories of American lives.

Often, they involve multiple generations, or at least the lifespan of one quirky character.

They’re compulsively readable without being too light.

They’re not overly fancy or experimental. (The books are, after all, chosen mostly by journalists, not the literary elite.)

They’re of truly high quality, both in prose and in heart. I believe them.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all the books that win fit this mold. But the Board never seems to stray too far from this category, and they return to it again and again. It’s Middlesex. It’s Cavalier & Klay, and Empire Falls. They don’t have to be the very best, most artistically accomplished, groundbreaking books. But it’s a towering achievement in a certain micro-genre.

And nobody wrote one this year.* So what? Keep writing, authors. Keep reading, readers. There are other awards.

*The closest book I came across was The Art of Fielding. It fits the general description, but – and I may be alone here – I found it to be utterly without sparkle. Almost as if it were written by formula, like those movies you think are produced purely for the purpose of getting Oscar nominations. It fails my last criterion. In short, just not good enough.

News: No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction - My Thoughts

Well, my four posts predicting the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction were for naught, the Pulitzer Board chose not to award the prize this year. Immediately after the announcement, my Twitter feed exploded with dismay from publicists, reviewers, and avid readers. Still, a no-award year is not unprecedented. Since the inception of the prize, it has gone unawarded eleven times, including three times in the 1970s. And yet, since the last no-award year was in 1977, some people thought the no-award practice had ended.

The lack of an award is a function of how the Pulitzer is chosen. As I mentioned in one of my prediction posts, the prize is awarded through a two-step process. First, a jury comprised of reviewers, authors and/or academics (usually three people) review submitted books and choose three finalists. Then, those three finalists are passed on the full Pulitzer Board, a body of approximately twenty. The Board has full discretion to choose a winner. The lack of an award shows that the Board was unable to reach a majority vote any of the finalists.
One thing to note: the Board is mostly comprised of journalists; there is only one author/literary person: Junot Díaz. In one of my previous posts, I wrote that I thought that journalists might scoff at a very “literary” finalist, such as Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and thus choose something more “accessible.” In the end, I don’t think the jury’s chosen finalists even gave the Board the chance to choose an excellent and accessible book. 

In fact, the finalists left me scratching my head, and not merely because I totally struck out with my predictions! The finalists were, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, a novella which had previously been published in a literary magazine; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, a debut novel which, in my opinion, was simply “okay”; and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, which was published as “unfinished.” Given the choices of the jury, I am not surprised that the Board couldn’t agree on a winner.  They didn’t have a fully fleshed out, above average novel, or even a full collection of short stories, to choose from.

Thus, I do not fault the choice of the Board not to award the prize, but I do question the choices of the jury. I am most shocked to see Open City ignored as a finalist. I thought it was much more serious and thought-provoking than Swamplandia! Compared to recent years, 2011 was, no doubt, a weak year when it came to Pulitzer-eligible books—those by an American author which dealt with “American themes.” Still, I think there were better options than the ones the jury made. I wrote extensively about six in my prediction posts, but I will offer two more. Even though I thought that the narrative of the PEN/Faulkner-winning and National Book Award-nominated, The Buddha in the Attic was a little bit too “cute,” I would have preferred to have seen it as a finalist. The same is true with the National Book Award-winning, but flawed, Salvage the Bones.  

Although, I just indicted the jury, I will give them an “out.” Any judged award, regardless of the discipline, is subject to the idiosyncrasies of the judges. There is no such thing as objectively good art. This was evident in the nominations of the other three major literary awards: the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Each award chooses five books as finalists. Between the 15 slots, 13 books different books were chosen. (It is true that some of the awards allow foreign authors, and do not have a “preferably about American life” mandate, but put that aside.) Most of all, none of these books were among the Pulitzer finalists. I have no doubt that the jury advanced the books it thought were most worthy, without any ulterior motives. I am just commenting that I would have made different decisions.

The Pulitzer is the only major literary award that chooses to pass on awarding the prize when the competitors “fall below the standard of excellence.” (language from Pulitzer website.) In not awarding the prize, the Pulitzer Board shows that it will not sacrifice its values to meet the desires of the publishing industry. Publishers love the Pulitzer because winners are virtually guaranteed to sell many books, for years to come. But the Pulitzer is more than an economic benefit to publishers; it is also a helpful guide to readers.  The Pulitzer often directs non-serious readers to interesting books which they might not have otherwise read. Thus, readers are also major losers in a no-award year. And yet, pushing readers toward quality literature is merely a result of the prize, not its mission. It should not be a consideration of the Pulitzer Board, and obviously was not.

A very good post from Bookriot argues that the lack of an award should not be a comment on the state of American fiction. The author argues that while 2011 was, somewhat, weak, 2010 was a strong year and 2012 is looking to be strong also. I concur. I would be shocked if the Pulitzer Board declined to award the prize next year.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Countdown to the Pulitzer...Part 4: My Final Predictions

This is my 4th and final post in my “Countdown to the Pulitzer” series. The prizes for journalism, letters and the arts will be announced today at 3pm.

To recap, I have written three other posts, each featuring two pairs of books:

The Long Shots: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. (See post here.)

The “Middle of the Road” Contenders: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (See post here.)

The Favorites: The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo and Open City by Teju Cole (See post here.)

First, I recently learned that I had not done careful enough research regarding eligibility. Patrick deWitt is not eligible to win because authors must be U.S. citizens, not merely residents to be eligible. (In fact, he was also ineligible because his book was first published in Canada. Eligible books must be first published in the U.S.)

In place of The Sisters Brothers, I am going to substitute in another “long shot”: The Submission by Amy Waldman. This debut novel follows a committee designing a memorial to a terrorist attack. The attack looks much like 9/11, occurring in New York City and with similar perpetrators, but it has fictionalized elements. The tension in the novel comes when the winning design, chosen through a blind submission, is revealed to have been submitted by a Muslim-American. The novel tackles important and thought provoking issues of racism, fear and forgiveness. Still, it is squarely in the “long shot” camp. The prose is at times cumbersome, and the setting doesn’t work in its favor. As I mentioned when writing about Ten Thousand Saints, and Open City, I feel like the Pulitzer committee may be apprehensive to honor two books set in New York City in back-to-back years. (Last year’s winner A Visit from the Goon Squad was primarily set in New York and its environs.)

My predictions

The prize is announced with a winner and two, unranked, finalists. My predictions are:

Winner: The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo

Finalist: Open City by Teju Cole

Finalist: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

It is true that the title story of Delillo’s collection takes place in New York, and thus I am, somewhat, undermining my argument regarding a non-New York book winning. Still, the collection is not New York centric; the other stories take place in other places, some of them abroad. In fact, an argument could be made that the collection doesn’t fulfill the criteria of the prize, which is supposed to honor a work of fiction “preferably dealing with American life.” Still, there plenty of previous winners which don’t fully deal with American life. Conversely, there are very few examples of books with non-American characters, in non-American settings winning. This is the reason why I have completely discounted one of my favorite books from last year, The Tiger’s Wife.

As I have written previously, my intention has been to predict the final outcome, not to make my own personal selection.  The Angel Esmeralda was not necessarily one of my favorite books from 2011, but it was an excellent, memorable collection. As I have considered all of the factors which I can think of, honoring DeLillio makes the most sense to me. Still, the Pulitzer Board sometimes makes surprising decisions, such as in 2010 when the little-known Tinkers by Paul Harding won.  Part of me would not be surprised if this year’s prize went to a book that no one is talking about. There really isn’t a clear frontrunner like eventual winners A Visit from the Goon Squad was last year and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was in 2008. Regardless of the outcome, I am excited to write more about it later this week. Stay tuned.