19 November 2013

Gearing up for the greatest event of the literary year


A little hard to believe we are fast approaching the end of the year. Since I am not quite ready to begin compiling my favorite reads for 2013 I thought I would look forward before I look back. For as long as he has been doing it (this will be the 4th year) I have gleefully participated in CB James' TBR reading dare. Okay, I may start off gleeful and then go through other less positive emotions during the course of the dare. And there was the one year where I gave up a week before it was over. But let's not get stuck in the details.

This year the annual reading dare is the TBR Triple Dog Dare. The rules are the same as every other year, from midnight December 31st until April 1st you can only read books that are already in your possession (in your To Be Read pile) on New Year's Eve. This doesn't mean you can't buy books during that time, you just can't read the ones you buy until after April Fool's Day. It is this point that make the TBR dare fairly doable. One can still scratch the book buying itch and stay on the wagon.

This may be the last year CB does the TBR dare so I decided to make it extra difficult for myself. Go out with a bang as it were. With any luck John and I will finally be starting an 11-month renovation in the early part of the new year. The project in comprehensive enough that it means we need to put all of our stuff into storage and move into an apartment (probably a studio). So my thought was that I can only read from my TBR pile while we are out of our house. This would make my TBR dare 11 months instead of three. It is nuts and I am almost sure I will fail, but I am going to try nonetheless. And given that we will be living in very small digs and be needing every penny we can find for the project, I am going to refrain from buying books during that period as well.

Besides being mentally ill, the thing that really draws me to these additional parameters is that when the renovation is complete, my library will have all new bookcases. Somehow I feel like I need to earn those new shelves.

For those of you toying with the idea of the much more sane three-month dare I highly recommend it. We all complain about our bulging TBR piles. Plus I have found that it is a great way to finally try long overlooked gems hiding in plain sight--as well as dispensing with long overlooked pieces of crap that we have felt compelled to keep for some reason.

You still have a month and a half to decide to join in...and it fits in with all those misguided New Year's Resolutions you are already starting to mull over...do it...

16 November 2013

Mini-break in Sedona for a wedding

My beautiful niece got married in beautiful Sedona, Arizona last weekend. About two and half hours north of the Phoenix airport, it wasn't long before John and I began four days of saying "this is so beautiful" about every ten minutes. We have been lucky enough to travel to a lot of amazing places and Sedona is easily in the top five in terms of natural beauty.

We stayed at the Enchantment Resort which is nestled in its own canyon about 10 minutes outside of the town of Sedona. It couldn't have been a more perfect spot. And the weather. Sunny, mid 70s during the day and lovely crisp 40s at night. So lovely.

It made me want to read Willa Cather. Even though I had six books with me for four days, Cather was not among them.

See the smiley face?

03 November 2013

A good review of a bad book (aka a positively negative review)

I think bloggers and reviewers are being too nice to best-selling author Ben Dolnick and his most recent novel At the Bottom of Everything. This flawed, albeit readable, 239-page book is about childhood friends who grow apart after one of their boneheaded hi-jinks leads to tragedy. It had the potential to be a very intriguing story of the gut-wrenching, life-changing dilemma the two friends faced. But, well, something just wasn't right.

Do you ever read a novel that feels like the author is trying too hard to be a novelist? Where all the ingredients are present but none of it feels organic? This one falls into that category for me. It makes me wonder about the annual November novel writing challenge NaNoWriMo, which I was very tempted to join this year. Those who participate challenge themselves to write 50,000 words during the course of the month. Although I am sure some brilliance comes out of the challenge, there must be a lot of participants who would be happy for their efforts to be as mediocre as Dolnick's. (It all reminds me of that hilarious scene in Family Guy where Stewie makes fun of Brian's efforts to write a novel. A clip is posted below.)

I should admit that the setting of At the Bottom of Everything was, for me, like waving a big piece of bloody chum in the water. Set, not just in Washington, DC, but in the part of DC in which I live, I was hyper sensitive to Dolnick's use of place names and local color. In a few cases I think he may have gotten a few things wrong--not so embarrassingly that I feel the need to hop on the Metro and confirm whether or not this is the case--but wrong enough not to trust the author's eye. Perhaps worse, and far more prevalent was the Mad-Lib quality of the locales used in the book. Except instead of being asked to insert nouns and verbs, etc. the author was asked to insert blindingly obvious upper NW DC place names. It got to the point where I began to think that Dolnick did a two-month internship in DC and went back home thinking he was a native. But when I Googled him it turned out that he was born and raised in DC--kind of. He grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the toniest of first ring DC suburbs. Our answer to Westchester County. So what, right? That doesn't preclude him from writing authentically about the city. (In fact, in some ways he writes very authentically about it, after all I live among a lot of precocious white kids who shuttle each day to their private schools. In a way he did capture that experience.) But it all just felt so clumsy. Even the name of his fictional school, Dupont Prep was a little too corny and obvious to be believed.

At this point you may be thinking one of two things: 1) who cares, this could only matter to a local; and 2) it's a piece of fiction, it doesn't have to exist in reality. True on both points, but then don't feel the need to give everything a name. The number of times he mentions Macomb Street is a little crazy. It is completely irrelevant to the plot and isn't descriptive enough to mean anything to someone who doesn't know the street. "The car rolled down the street onto Connecticut Avenue..." would have been just fine.

And not only is there no such thing as the Cleveland Park Police, but drawing attention to the name adds absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to the story.

What's worse than all this clumsy, local name dropping, is what Dolnick leaves out. More than a few details about some of the plot pivots that would have been very helpful and given the book more dimension are left out entirely.

  • After being fired from one job he gets another one that never gets mentioned (or did I skim over that point?).
  • He goes from sharing an apartment to having his own without any sense that his character could afford it.
  • He abruptly heads off to India to find his friend but there is no mention of how he was able to leave this new mystery job or how he was bankrolling the trip.
  • Both his big romantic break-up and the rebound affair he has with his employer that play such a prominent role in the first part of the book just kind of disappear without any meaningful follow-up.
  • One of the peripheral characters whose life is tremendously impacted by the tragedy is completely ignored until the denouement.
  • [spoiler alert] How does a car roll down a hill and cause an accident yet miraculously stop so that it doesn't hit or get hit by the swerving SUV; is not seen by anyone but the other driver despite the fact that the author tells us that the street in question is never without activity; and is backed up the hill by two teenage boys so that no one ever finds out?

Then Dolnick adds in a bunch of email that neither advance the plot nor provide much more than philosophical filler. And of course a superfluous vision quest to India so the characters can have catharsis.

And then, and then, who cares.

Reading reviews of this book on Goodreads, on other blogs, and in the mainstream press leads me to think that people have really low expectations for contemporary literary fiction. It also makes me want to rethink my recent interest in books published this century.

Funniest clip ever about writing a novel...