Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

By Amber Dermont
St. Martin's Press. 310 pp. $24.99

Given the title of the title of Amber Dermont’s beautiful debut novel, it should not be surprising that its narrator, Jason Prosper, sees the world in images related to the sea. A building on the campus of his new boarding school becomes a “barracuda.” Yellow splotches on jackets of boys running become sunfish. Jason loves the sea. He has grown up sailing with his best friend Cal, first as kids, and then at boarding school. 

The Starboard Sea opens as Jason starts his senior year at a new boarding school, Bellingham, which is known for giving second chances to students expelled from other schools. Jason’s crime: cheating. The fact that it came in the wake of Cal committing suicide does not matter to administrators. And despite the old rumor that anyone whose roommate commits suicide gets an automatic 4.0, Jason is thrown out. 

Bellingham is populated with rich kids, both old and new money. Jason comes from the former. His family has been in banking for years and owns a portrait of his great-great-grandmother painted by John Singer Sargent. As a condition on accepting Jason, his father has promised Bellingham enough money to fund two new dorms. One will be named in honor of the current headmaster; the other will be called Prosper Hall, a fact that only somewhat embarrasses Jason.

Upon arriving at Bellingham, Jason is not certain if he wants to sail again. He’s barely ever sailed with anyone but Cal and he’s not sure he wants to sail with anyone else. They were the perfect team. When he decides to try out, an accident where he nearly kills the team captain makes his decision to quit easier. This decision gives him more time to himself, which he spends with a new friend, Aidan, who despite the male name, is a girl.

It becomes obvious early on that Jason has secrets, but he reveals himself little by little, both to the reader and to Aidan.  Fortunately he is not the classic unreliable narrator. His final reveal, at the end of the novel, proves this, but it takes a while to get there. Still, we learn early on that his friendship with Cal crossed boundaries that most male friendships do not.  Aidan has secrets too, which she is equally reticent to divulge. The reason she has ended up at Bellingham has become the topic of many school rumors and it is sometime before she tells Jason the truth. An especially beautiful aspect of the novel is that their relationship does not progress in the expected way, especially given how much unsupervised time they are able to muster. Their relationship retains a sweetness and innocence that other relationships at Bellingham do not. Dermont provides a funny description of how Bellingham allows make-out time every evening in the darkness of one of the dorms, where some students take “make out” to another level.

Dermont’s missteps are few. In one scene, parents threw cash into holes dug at a groundbreaking, as donations to the school. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, when the wind scatters the bills, no administrators bother to collect them. Later, students pass them by them by, stuck in tree branches, without stopping. Dermont’s message: these students are too rich to care. But somebody must care. Not every single student could have possibly come from money. Where were the scholarship students? Even the one named minority student was rich. By trying to heighten the sense of privilege of the students, Dermont threatens to turn Bellingham and its inhabitants into a caricature of itself.

Aidan, who believes her father may be Robert Mitchum, provides the best balance to the other students at Bellingham. She is still wealthy—from her mother’s family—but she comes from California, and not the Northeast, like the rest of the students. She also cares about her studies and music. As a testament to this fact, a teacher gives her the key to a special study room in library with a piano, where she and Jason pass time.

Midway through the novel, when a hurricane hits the school, another event leads to a change in the narrative. What was a simple beautiful portrait of a time and place and people becomes a mystery that Jason must solve. The shift is startling, dramatic, but in the end, unsuccessful. It adds outward drama to a story which already had drama just below the surface.

Still, The Starboard Sea is a touching portrait of youth. It exposes, in almost equal parts, the cruelty and compassion of teenagers. The coming of age novel has been done so many times before, and will be done many times again, but fortunately, Dermont has something new to add. Some of the best moments come in the last pages, where the meaning of the title is revealed, and Jason is able to make peace with his mistakes and the mistakes of others. It is not a perfect novel, but stick with it to the end, you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guest Post: Why Salvage the Bones Didn't Make the Cut

Today is the first "guest post" on this blog. I hope to have others in the future. My guest, Amy, has some great thoughts to share on the National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, especially why it may have made an early exit from the Tournament of Books. Without further introduction, here is Amy.

Amy here. Jonathan invited me to share my literary thoughts in his turf.

I read Salvage the Bones a few months ago -- here was my take, and why I wasn't too sad to see it fall in Round 1 of the ToB. 

Salvage the Bones has the makings of a fine novel with a lovely series of mythological echoes. It has passages of beautiful writing, a memorable cast of characters, and some truly wrenching moments. But the author also made a fatal error in judgment which robs the reader of much of the pleasure of reading a well executed novel: she doesn’t trust her readers to arrive at her intended conclusions unaided. Rather than letting her Hurricane Katrina story grow organically out of the seeds of her own experiences and of the myth of Medea, she arms her fifteen-year-old heroine with a volume of Edith Hamilton, improbably assigned (we learn on page 7) as the one required book of pre-junior-year summer reading, and inserts syrupy poetic musings about Medea and Jason into the girl’s otherwise believable thoughts about love and sex, survival and family.

The problems with this are many. For one, Ward doesn’t seem to realize that the true pleasure of reading a novel with classical themes can be in detecting them, in watching for ripples and echoes. And Ward displays a damaging lack of faith in her readers. She is a veteran of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and of workshops associated with Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship, and is now a teacher of creative writing, so I find it especially surprising that she doesn’t seem to have learned that the readers almost always spot interesting resonances that the writer did not intentionally plant. By so blatantly flagging her intended invocations of mythology, she may well have lost this contribution, this third voice in the dialogue that ought to include writer, text, and reader.

But perhaps more troubling, the explicit references don’t feel authentic to the character who makes them. Once or twice, there is a mention of the character reading the book. But there is no sense that she is generally a reader, that she experiences the world through books, that anyone else in her life is this way, that her house is one with books (or that she is the misfit for being the reader), no indication that the assigning teacher is an influential presence – you get my drift. It almost reads as though the book were written without that overlay, and then the author went back and inserted the references at appropriate places. It has a sort of photoshopped quality, the shiny pieces in a different light than the background they’re pasted on, not quite to scale. Something doesn’t belong.

And this is a damn shame, because the authentic voice of the book – the book I would’ve read if I could somehow hit “undo” on that insertion, or perhaps hire an enterprising middle school student to go through and white out all the references – is a lovely one. Ward has indicated in interviews that the central action in the story, involving a family’s surviving Hurricane Katrina in a rapidly flooding attic, are drawn from her own experience, and this shows in the rawness of the description. The book also contains some very moving meditations on motherhood by a pregnant teenager whose own mother died years ago, whose lover has betrayed her, and who helps her brother deliver a litter of puppies produced by his prized pit bull, who also seems to have a complicated relationship to motherhood. And though Ward, who is young in age (she was born in 1977) and in her writing career (this is her second novel), clearly can’t accept the fact, this is enough.

Ward has written a book about poor black people in the South. But rather than bringing her own perspective, after years of education and distance to bear on the tale through authorial choices and subtle shaping, she has forced those thoughts clumsily into the mind of a narrator who has no reason to be thinking them. There are some looming presences in this territory, writers both black and white who have managed, to great effect, to impart their own insights about their characters and where they fit in the patterns of things without sacrificing the integrity of those characters’ identifies. Faulkner comes to mind (As I Lay Dying, we learn, was our heroine’s convenient summer reading assignment in the previous year), as does Toni Morrison. Perhaps this is what the National Book Award committee was thinking when they overlooked this glaring rookie mistake and chose Salvage the Bones over the much more subtle and skillful Tiger’s Wife, which uses its ancient stories to much more startling effect.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Tournament of Books: Recapping the First Round & Predicting the Rest

The first and second rounds of the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament (or the “second” and third rounds if you call the dumb play-in games a “round”) are now complete. More importantly, as far as this blog goes, the first round of the Tournament of Books (TOB) is also complete. Sixteen novels have been narrowed to eight. (If you don’t know about the TOB see my preview post from January and my short prediction post from last week, before the first round.)

If you have ever followed the basketball tournament, even a little bit, you probably know that the first round always includes some upsets. (This year there were two *major* upsets, but I’ll let you track those down in the sports news. Although, the news is now moot.) The first round of the TOB was no different. There was one “big” upset, as well as two smaller ones, during the eight opening round matches.

The “odds on” favorite, as predicted by Jeff O’Neal on, State of Wonder by Ann Pachett, lost to The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The National Book Award winner for fiction, Salvage the Bones, lost to the little-known, Lightning Rods  by Helen De Witt. (No relation to Patrick, as far as I know.)  And the much-publicized The Art of Fielding lost to the NBCC-finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winning Open City. 

Still, each of these eliminated favorites will have another chance. The TOB includes a twist in which the two most popular (eventually eliminated) books, as voted by readers before the tournament, are reinstated as “zombie picks.” As of right now, State of Wonder and The Art of Fielding would both be “zombie picks,” but because the zombie picks do not reenter the competition until only two books remain, this could still change. For instance, I would bet if Open City upsets The Marriage Plot in the next round, The Marriage Plot would have enough votes to replace State of Wonder or The Art of Fielding. That remains to be seen. 


The four matches of the quarterfinals are as follows, with my predicted winners in bold:

The Sense of an Ending v. Lightning Rods

1Q84 v. The Tiger’s Wife

The Sisters Brothers v. Swamplandia!    

The Marriage Plot v. Open City 

Note: I have not read Lightning Rods, but I think that The Sense of an Ending is too strong to lose. I also have not read The Sisters Brothers but I think that Swamplandia! is vulnerable. 


If my predictions hold, the semifinals would look like this, with my predictions in bold again:

The Sense of an Ending v. The Tiger’s Wife

The Sisters Brothers v. Open City 

Zombie Round 

If these predictions hold, I predict the zombie picks will be The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot.

At this point, I am not sure which zombie pick would be paired with which remaining finalist, but I see the final match shaping up one of two ways:

1) The Art of Fielding v. Open City

2) The Tiger’s Wife v. Open City

In 1) I think The Open City wins it all. In 2) I think The Tiger’s Wife wins it all.

Still, the whole “zombie pick” concept really makes this incredibly hard to predict. I will certainly make another prediction once the “zombie round” is determined. 

I encourage you to take some time to read the judging and commentary on some of the first round matches. Some very interesting issues were raised, including ambitious efforts which, although they might not exactly work, should be respected for their ambition. (This came up both in the 1Q84 match and The Tiger’s Wife match, and to a lesser extent the Swamplandia! match.)

Also, although in almost all cases online reader comments are worth skipping, here the reader comments are shockingly astute and enlightening. Other readers/commenters have definitely helped me see some things which I missed. This is especially true in the final opening round match from today, which was arguably the most tightly fought match of the first round.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

By Alexis M. Smith 
Tin House Books. 174 pp. $10.95

In the age of e-books, certain books demand to be read as physical books, simply because of their design. Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, beautifully published by Tin House, is one such book. In this case, the design fully supports the prose. Smith’s prose is sparse and lyrical, and the short lines (about nine words) and short pages (about nineteen lines) reflect this. In my opinion, even if an e-reader were set to display the book as printed, possible extra space, on the sides or at the bottom, would change the reading experience. As a paperback original, the physical book is only about two dollars more than the e-book. In this case, I urge you to buy the physical book. (See a sample page at the bottom of this post.)

Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a twenty-something living in Portland, Oregon. Isabel works as a librarian restoring old books, loves old things and secondhand stores, and pines after the library’s new IT guy, a recently-returned Iraq War veteran.  The story follows her through a single day of her life, with brief flashbacks to her childhood.

The “glaciers” of the title refer to glaciers in Alaska, where Isabel was raised until her parents’ divorce took her away. Early in the novel, Smith has Isabel imagining a scene that she was too young to have witnessed: her parents traveling from Seattle to Alaska, via ferry, and the glaciers they might have seen. “Like other great creature before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed.”

Despite the loss that the title evokes as a result of this section, Glaciers is not a story of loss. It is much more a story of finding. The novel opens with Isabel finding an old postcard in “her favorite junk store” to add to her collection. She is surprised to find that the postcard actually has a message and imagines a story to fit the message. A bit later, she finds a vintage dress for friend’s party. Later still, she finds the courage to finally make herself vulnerable to her crush. Loss does come, but it is not a crippling loss. It is certainly not as large as a death, like the glaciers.

And that is the major flaw of the novel: the connection of the glaciers—of Alaska—to the spotlighted day. Isabel’s Alaskan childhood does not seem to inform her present, at least not enough. She had left Alaska when she was only ten, after her parents’ divorce.  Although there are flashbacks, including one that shows the origins of her love of old things, it’s just not enough. Even a beautiful memory of one of Isabel’s last days in Alaska, where she and her family visit a glacier, fails to show how her Alaskan past reverberates through this one day. Perhaps, if the book was longer or it followed more than one day, this would not be a problem.

And that is another flaw: Glaciers is almost too tight and too short. Still, is also undeniably lovely. What eventually makes it triumphant is Smith’s wonderfully sparse, lyrical prose. Her sentences are short, but never feel staccato. They flow together so well that I found myself reading faster than I wanted to, and missing some beautiful moments. I had to go back and reread certain sections. One day I will reread the entire novel. 

Glaciers is part of Tin House’s “New Voices” series. I was first introduced to the series last year through Powell’s Books excellent book club, Indispensables, and their selection of Katie Arnold Ratliff’s wonderful debut novel, Bright Before Us. Tin House writers might not get the attention of debuts from more major publishers—like Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding—but I look forward to discovering more new voices from Tin House.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: Flatscreen by Adam Wilson

By Adam Wilson
336 pp. Harper Perennial. $14.99 (Paperback Original) 

Eli Schwartz is 20-years old, not in college, and lives in his mother’s basement. Oh yea, and he can’t drive. If this sounds like a set up to bad joke about Dungeons and Dragons or other nerdly pursuits, you aren’t far off, except Eli’s realm of expertise is cooking and movies, and Adam Wilson’s debut novel has very few bad jokes.

Eli is Jewish, or at least “Jewish” in the modern/secular sense. He goes to temple on the Yom Kippur, but only after being reminded by his older brother, Benjy, that it is “the important one.” (The important one because it’s the most holy day for Jews, 10 days after the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.) Beyond this, there is not a pervasive Jewishness to his story, a la Roth or Shteyngart, and yet the narrative has strains of each. There is a complaint-like “woe is me” quality to the novel, but one in which we are able to laugh along with, not at Eli.

The story, narrated by Eli, comes at us rapid fire. In the opening Eli is caught off-guard (pantsless) when his mother, showing off their house to potential buyers, bursts into his bedroom with a man in a wheelchair, Seymour Kahn, and his twenty-something daughter, Erin.  By page 40, Eli has gotten stoned in the woods with Kahn during Yom Kippur services, Benjy is dating Erin, and Eli, who would love to have Erin himself, is on the outside, like he has been for most portions of his life.

This is not to say that Eli is totally sexually inexperienced.  In one of the many interludes to the main narrative, set up in the form of bullet-pointed lists, Eli provides us with a summary of his sexual exploits. For a twenty-year old, his experiences are not nothing, but he is probably right in feeling behind his peers. The previous list is aptly titled, “Sexual Experiences,” others include, “Facts about my father,” and “On being funny.” These interludes do a good job of breaking up the narrative, and often provide some of the most poignant moments of the novel.

On the other hand, the parenthetical references to movies which are littered through the narrative are less successful. They, at times, feel forced, especially since some are real and some are fictional. Also, there wasn’t a situation where Eli earned his credibility as a movie expert in the way he earned his credibility as a foodie. On outings to Whole Foods (driven by his brother), he examines the freshness of produce like an expert chef. One such outing also sets up a later sexual encounter with the mother of a high school classmate.

Yes, Eli adds more than a few entries to his “sexual experiences” list during the novel. Kahn, who becomes a friend and father figure to Eli, also aids in this. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Kahn is still sex-crazed and enjoys drug-fueled sessions with strippers. He is sure that Eli is not having enough sex and aims to change that, in part with drugs. That situation leads to one of the darkly funniest moments of the novel.

Still, Flatscreen is more than a sexual novel. And calling it a “coming of age story” is a disservice to Wilson’s narrative brilliance. Yes, Eli ends the story in a different place than he began, certainly more mature and less drug-addled. He has “come of age.” But there is more than that. He sees a future for himself, but he is still not sure what it is. He envisions many possible “endings” for himself (which are really beginnings). These come in the form of movie-genre inspired hypotheticals, which Wilson integrates into the story much better than the movie parenthetical references mentioned above. 

Flatscreen is tragic, raunchy, darkly-funny, eventually hopeful and just plain fun. Wilson is a great new voice.

Please note: Flatscreen is a paperback original. You might not find it with hardcover new releases, depending on how your bookstore displays new books. Also, don't be confused that a just-released book is coming in paperback.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

NBCC and PEN/Hemingway Winners & Thoughts on the Pulitzer Prize

As I mentioned in my post from Thursday morning, the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced that evening. Still, rather than report the results yesterday, I chose to write about the “bigger news” of the week: the pending Justice Department investigation into e-book pricing. If you haven’t read about that yet, you should. It’s one of the biggest and most interesting things going on in the industry right now. 

As for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the award in fiction went to Edith Pearlman for her short story collection, Binocular Vision. As I mentioned in the post linked above, Pearlman was also a National Book Award finalist and is now a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. At age 76, she has been writing for over 40 years, and while far from a “household name,” she has been a favorite among fellow writers, as well as reviewers, for years.

With this NBCC win, Pearlman becomes a heavy favorite to win the Pulitzer Prize. Earlier this year I found a very interesting site. The site is ostensibly for book collectors who want to own first editions of Pulitzer Prize winning books prior to the announcement (when such editions demand a premium), but there are discussions about books in general, which if not always "deep," are often interesting. More importantly, one of the active members has assembled a weighted statistical model that attempts to predict the Pulitzer, based on historical trends. While is not truly possible to predict a judged award statistically, this model has had some amazing success in recent years. Last year, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was the most highly ranked book in the model and went on to win the Pulitzer. In 2008, The Brief and Wondrous Lifeof Oscar Wao was the third ranked book and went on to win. As I mentioned in my post on background information on the NBCC, simply being a finalist (not necessarily a winner) is the single best predictor of the Pulitzer, with 23 past NBCC winners going on to win the Pulitzer. Although I have not yet read Binocular Vision, but I have a suspicion that it may not win.

On the other hand…

Prior to my post on Thursday, I had not noticed that the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award had been announced. This award is given to first books of fiction, whether novels or collections of short stories. The winner was my pick for the NBCC award, Teju Cole’s Open City. I am very happy to see Cole honored. Although, I enjoyed other first novels more last year – including The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (who was given an honorable mention for the award) and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht – Cole’s novel is probably technically superior. Based on the statistical model mentioned above, it also raises his chances of winning the Pulitzer, either this year or in the future. In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, won the PEN/Hemingway and then went on to win the Pulitzer. More interestingly, at least two writers – Marianne Robinson and Edward P. Jones – won the PEN/Hemingway and then won the Pulitzer for subsequent books. I think that Open City had a chance at winning the Pulitzer, but if it doesn’t keep an eye on Cole’s future work. He is definitely a writer to watch.

Friday, March 9, 2012

News: Department of Justice to Take on E-Book Pricing

It appears that the Justice Department may be planning to sue Apple and some of the biggest U.S. publishers over e-book pricing. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article does a good job at outlining the issues, you should read it, but I wanted to write more.

The major issue is the concept of “agency pricing” and whether there was collusion between the companies to keep e-book prices high. (I have written on agency pricing, in passing, once before. See my post from January here.) Under “agency pricing,” the publisher sets the price of an e-book. If a retailer wants to sell the e-book, they must charge the established price, taking a commission as an “agent” of the publisher. This is distinct from “wholesale pricing,” where publishers sell physical books to retailers at a discount to the cover price, and the retailer can sell the books at any price they choose – even at a loss.

If your first instinct is “mandating a price must be illegal,” you would be right. Or you would have been right until 2007. According to this article from PaidContent, prior to then it was an “automatic violation of antitrust law for manufacturers to impose prices on retailers.” Then the Supreme Court decided a case called “Leegin” in which it rejected a blanket ban in favor of a case-by-case approach. If publishers can show that the agency pricing model is “reasonable,” it may be able to stand. It is unclear to me what the “rule of reason” established under Leegin entails, but publishers might have to prove that the pricing protects consumers.

Is there really a circumstance under which higher prices actually protect consumers? Skepticism over that question is at the heart of the Justice Department investigation. Publishers might argue that consumer protection exists where higher prices lead to more options. One of the reasons why publishers pushed for the agency pricing model is because of Amazon. According to the Wall Street Journal article above, there was concern that if e-books were sold under the wholesale model, Amazon would discount them so much that other retailers could not keep up and that would leave only one major seller of e-books. One argument is that agency pricing levels the playing field and allows options such as Google Books to exist.

The contrary argument is that publishers were simply being greedy and that they did not want consumers to get so used to cheap e-books that they could not sell higher-priced books. For the most part, agency-priced e-books cost a few dollars less than the cover price of paperbacks.* Many consumers seem to think that this price is still too high. The popular wisdom is that the publishers must be making a killing with no paper, printing and shipping costs. The fact of the matter is that “most of the costs of publishing a book are fixed (acquisition, cover design, editing, marketing, etc), and don’t go away in a digital world.” This may not be an argument that will be part of any legal proceeding, but it is one that publishers may need to make with consumers. If publishers are forced to go to a wholesale model, the cover price of an e-book may have to be closer to the price of a hardcover in order for publishers to make a profit. Consumers may whine, but they will likely buy their favorite authors.

This is a complicated situation and I make no claims to have gotten everything correct. I welcome your comments and look forward to writing on the topic again.

*(On discount sites this often makes the paperbacks less expensive. Still, given that the publisher typically discounts paperbacks 50-60% to such sites, but keeps approximately 70% of the agency-priced e-books, their cash flow is the same.)