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by Chris Barsanti

16 Nov 2007


So, the National Book Awards for 2007 have finally been decided on, giving us now very little time to scour through reviews of the winners in order to pretend as though we’ve read them (one has to have some conversational gambit, besides the price of Manhattan real estate and whether to donate to Clinton or Obama, to fall back on at all those fabulous cocktail soirees cluttering up the evening calendar, doesn’t one?). There are four winners—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and kids’ stuff—and I can only honestly speak to two of them.

The winner for fiction was Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which I considered recently in a review elsewhere in the PopMatters voluminous book reviews section. According to myself, “This is a novel drunk on the power of language, which is a critic’s way of saying that it’s self-indulgent, madly so.” It’s also a critic’s way of having it both ways. For a real laceration of the book’s sloppy pretensions, read B.R. Myers’ contrarian review in the new Atlantic; he’s not entirely right but when he says about Johnson that “He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer”, he’s far from wrong.

As for non-fiction, Tim Weiner’s massive, horrific CIA history Legacy of Ashes took home the gold, and it damn sure deserves it. I spent far too many words arguing just that in a PopMatters feature here. There were winners for poetry and books for kids, as well, but honestly, who has time for such things?

All of this is a way of skirting the biggest issue which seemed to arise from the festivities the other night, as reported by New York‘s Boris Kachka—in other words, why was that editor supposedly feeling up Christopher Hitchens?

by Nikki Tranter

13 Nov 2007


Just in from the New York Times:

Ira Levin, a mild-mannered playwright and novelist who liked nothing better than to give people the creeps — and who did so repeatedly, with best-selling novels like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil—died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

by Nikki Tranter

13 Nov 2007


The AV Club’s recent report on the worst book-to-film adaptations has led to some pretty fierce discussion at my house. Happy as we are to see The Grinch get a ribbing, we’re not so sure The Hours, Bee Season, or the remake of All the King’s Men deserve such scorn. I remember all of those as engaging, even gripping in the case of The Hours, which I watched days after finishing the novel.

Stephen King’s The Shining, however, is more out of place than most here, tossed off as “lousy”, with easy dissings of Steven Weber’s acting talents and some TV-grade special effects served up in place of genuine anti-adaptation argument. AV reports:

King never cared for Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance in the earlier film, which he felt tipped off the character’s descent into madness too plainly, but Steven Weber (a.k.a. that guy from Wings) was no one’s idea of an upgrade.

Except, of course, King himself. And anyone who’s read the book and knows Jack Torrance as an everyday family man, something Weber does far more convincingly that schticky Nicholson. The miniseries forgoes scares, true, but Kubrick’s version was hardly frightening and just as laborious. Garris’s film ran four hours, Kubrick’s felt that way.

On the whole, though, AV has it pretty much spot on. Much could be added—perhaps Re:Print will put its own list together. Any suggestions?

 

by Nikki Tranter

11 Nov 2007


“He was by nature bound to a style of excess. There were times when you would be fed-up with him, but if you could conceive of American culture of the past 50 years without Norman Mailer, you would find it a lot drearier.”

Courtesy: Achievement.org

Courtesy: Achievement.org

So says EL Doctorow or Norman Mailer, who died this past weekend in New York City. The best of the obits can be found in the Los Angeles Times. Elaine Woo dissects Mailer’s varied images, from wunderkind to genius, giant to buffoon.

The Guardian positions Mailer as “the pugilist who wrote the story of America”, the Village Voice credits its co-founder, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution digs up a host of literary types to praise Mailer up, down, and sideways. John Mark Eberhart at the Kansas City Star remembers Mailer from the perspective of a fan rather than a colleague or simple observer.

I took [Ancient Evenings] home. The suffering began. This book was a photonegative of [The Executioner’s] Song, dull instead of fascinating, leaden instead of lively. Certainly the writing was good. Mailer just didn’t convince me to care about the story. Through the years, that would be my experience with Mailer; to read him was to be alternately vexed and dazzled.

It’s impossible, though, to know just what to think of Mailer, egocentric Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who head-butted Gore Vidal and stabbed a lover at a party, based on these all-too-nice retrospectives. Check out the real Mailer for yourself over at Wired for Books. Don Swaim’s hour-long 1991 interview is most revealing.

 

by Nikki Tranter

4 Nov 2007


Cate Kennedy talks writing at LiteraryMinded:

I’ll try to have two things on the boil at the same time so I have something to switch to if I feel really stale with the first one. I’ll promise myself a coffee if I just do another 500 words. I trick and cajole myself into getting to the end of the crap draft, as if my unconscious is some sort of mutinous toddler who needs bribery just to stay on the task. Or perhaps a better analogy would be a big, undisciplined dog who hates the lead and never comes back when it’s called. You’ve got to try and train a dog like that, but generally it sees you with the leash in your hand and just runs off ...
And last of all, when I feel really uninspired, I think: what would you rather be doing? Nobody’s making me do it, after all, so I remember what Raymond Carver said: Don’t complain, don’t explain.

In my opinion, Cate Kennedy is living the Australian Dream. She gets to live and thrive in rural Victoria, where her kitchen window view reveals cows in paddocks, and see her worked reviewed (complete with special red star) in Publisher’s Weekly. A lucky woman, if ever there was one. She’s also warm, funny, and stupendously talented. Her book, Dark Roots is out in America in January, published by Grove/Atlantic.

Kennedy’s story, “Cold Snap”, also found in Dark Roots, was published in the New Yorker on 11 September 2006. Cate’s other works include the memoir Sing and Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal and the poetry collections Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires.

Check out the LiteraryMinded interview, the Publisher’s Weekly report, and note the jackets on the US and Australian releases of Dark Roots. The American release features a woman’s head in need of fresh peroxide, while the Aussie cover is far grittier, a hand sort of mid-xray, with a vein-like tree sprouting from the wrist. Vastly different images, somehow they both represent themes key to Kennedy’s stories, themes of hidden warts, demons, and boiling points. If one were forced to make such a comparison, I’d make Anne Tyler hook up with Chuck Palahniuk in middle of nowhere Australia. The very thought entices, right?

 

 

 

 

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