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DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Entries in novels (2)

Wednesday
Jul112012

Birthday Book Bonanza Ritual: The Pleasures of Non-Surprise

I had a birthday last month, which triggered a unique annual tribal ritual I thought I’d share.

A group of friends – my “movie posse” with whom I see at least half of the movies each year – marks each person’s birthday with an elaborate and “progressive” ceremony – not politically progressive, though we all are, but a sequence that starts with a movie of the honoree’s selection, followed by dinner at a restaurant, and finishing up with gift giving at somebody’s house, along with dessert and coffee.

Aside from its duration, what is probably the most unique about this event is the style (and scale) of the gift-giving. Prior to one’s pending event, the birthday person provides a list of items desired, usually books, CDs and DVDs. The list should be really long, so that buyers have a choice, and I guess, so that there is some element of surprise as to which wishes will come true.

Only this past year did we started using Amazon’s Wish-List feature. Originally – and I gather the process started more than 20 years ago – one’s list was sent via email. Each buyer needed to alert the others when you made a purchase. This takes a lot of work.

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Sunday
Dec112011

Best of 2011 - My Favorite Books

Books bring escape into wondrous worlds -- a magic carpet ride into the realms of the imagination that still propels my life. As a young Army brat I found it easier to make friends with David Copperfield and Raskolnikov, Oscar Matzerath, even Perry Mason than the crowd of strangers I met in my real life.

Now, with an audio book in my car and ebooks in my pocket, as well as a stack of paperbacks on my night table, I’m always immersed in multiple narratives.

Although I average more than a book per week, my pattern of book consumption is quite different than movies or television, which are dominated by current releases and the compulsion to see what’s both great and hot.

In recent years I’ve taken to posting capsule reviews on Goodreads.com, which also enables sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Here are the reviews of the books I consumed this year that earned 5 stars, the top ranking, followed by a list of the near-misses that got 4 Stars. (In reverse order, most recently finished first)

Feedback always appreciated.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2008) Now THIS is post-modernism you can love, mainly because the guy can f-ing write like a house afire. Yes, there is structural experimentation in narrative style. Yes, we have linked stories that span the centuries from the past to the future and back again. Yes we have different tones and styles. But oddly, it all makes sense. There is a thematic unity in this exploration of freedom, oppression and resistance, and a fierce commitment that the actions we take today will echo down through the ages in ways we simply cannot predict. But mostly, I just enjoyed the yarns, especially the Sci-Fi interludes. Mitchell creates a language of corporatese that grafts today's brands and slang into eerily discernible locutions with nary a tongue in cheek. Tom Tykwer and the Warchowski Bros. will co-direct the forthcoming movie version -- perfect choice I think.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre (1974). In honor of the forthcoming feature film version I returned to this, the greatest of all espionage novels (or so I remembered it), this time in audiobook form, which is really a perfect experience, given the importance of dialog, tone, class, and sheer Britishness to an understanding of the milieu and tale that LeCarre spins so well. I also have rewatched the classic BBC miniseries starring Alec Guiness. Obsessed, you say? Well… Naturally, and thank you for that, as George Smiley might say.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (2009). This one's got everything I want from a thriller: atmosphere, verisimilitude, heart, action, suspense, bad guys, social issues, sex. Set in 80’s go-go Houston, where money and power inevitably flow back to Big Oil, our hero is an idealistic lawyer and former student radical who stumbles across a thread in the tapestry of greed that defines the city. To unravel the thing, he needs to face up to his past (don't we all?), which in his case includes a pivotal episode as a black student leader on the edge of the Panthers and SDS, and his white girlfriend who betrays him (or not), and is, somewhat less convincingly, is now the city's Mayor. The story is chockablock full of gorgeous set-pieces (like the black-white tension in the Longshoreman's Union, the conduct of the student radical lifestyle, the venal maneuverings of politicians and business thugs) and memorable characters, especially those in the black community. You've got your well-meaning preacher (also the father-in-law), the shirtless part-time PI and bar owner, the white trash prostie whose tangle set off the chain of events that drives the relentless plot. I liked this book a lot. It reminded me of the early Walter Mosely, though set in a later and more hard-edged time, and with a lighter and more complex touch in matters of race and power.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2005). This is the second Auster novel I've consumed in just a few months, both audiobooks that were delivered well by the author himself. His more recent Invisible was more focused and the touch of mystery surrounding events and characters made the narrative more satisfying, but nevertheless, I quite liked these Brooklyn follies. There's a shaggy-dog quality to Auster's storytelling. Characters arise like visions, necessary for the story to move, engaging on their own terms. Chapters are almost like short stories, tight and tidy amidst the perambulations of the larger project of the novel. The aging narrator finds meaning and love, corny enough, but how he does it is not.

The Weight by Andrew Vachss (2010). The first Vachss novel I've read (or heard of) that doesn't involve the avenging angel Burke, THE WEIGHT was really involving: a character study in depth, the story of a bad guy (a tough professional thief) who takes the fall for a rape he did not commit in order to avoid using his real alibi, which was a robbery. He's a standup bad guy who refuses to roll over on his confederates. He serves the time, but upon release, things get weird, then weirder, as he tries to use his somewhat limited smarts to figure out who's zooming whom. I love love love the voice (and the narrator of the audio version). You can hear Burke's fierce protection of women, his respect for the truth, and his relentless pursuit of justice. What you also get in this book is an authentic, inside-out view of the life of a professional thief. I was sad when the story ran down.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin (2010). Nominally a police procedural because one of the two lead characters is a cop in rural Mississippi and the other is a suspect in two brutal crimes, CROOKED LETTERS has more in common with Faulkner and a long line of Southern gothic character studies. The past is the character, and liberation from its burden is the thematic driver. Franklin cannot write a bad sentence, and his narrative skill kept me awake too far into successive nights. You want to know what happened because you care about the people. As you discover more, you care more. Can't get any better'n that.

What would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis (2009) Even though Jarvis covers very little terrain that I'm not quite familiar with, I experienced serial "aha" moments throughout the entire book, little jolts of pleasure at how well he marshalls an argument, how well he writes, how prescient his "rules" of the Google age have proven to be in the years since he wrote the book. He has elevated the business practices of Google and other web-centric companies into ethical and philosophical principals that drive his eponymous title, and then turns it back on the reader and the institutions that we all depend upon. Quite deft. This is one book that is probably BEST consumed in e-book format, given how many examples are provided, no doubt with links (the central organizing principal of the network and, arguably, of this book). I may be forced to e-buy, as I listened to the audio version.

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (2005) Marseilles is the star, filled with thugs and mafiosi and hoors and Arabs and wops and cops. Izzo is the French David Peace: gritty, authentic, unrelenting, tough. So is the prose, but with the soul of a failed romantic. Our hero, a cop who escaped the ghetto and life of crime, searches for the reason why his two best pals from the old days have met with violent ends. It's as complicated a plot as you'll find, reminiscent of Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP, this one made even more challenging because of a ginormous multicultural cast of characters. Thanks to whomever it was that recommended this trilogy to me. I’ve got two more bedside waiting their turn.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011) I've loved Patchett ever since my friend Anna Marie gave me BEL CANTO for my birthday years ago, and this year, we went together to hear Ann read from STATE OF WONDER -- so wonderful. Did the fact that she inscribed my book "Happy Birthday Nick" have anything to do with loving it? I doubt it. I love her characters, the situations she places them in, and the dramatic arc of her storytelling mastery. This one, perhaps her most exotic (bordering on sci-fi, it would seem to me) works because we care about the people. And somehow, always, Ann makes me cry.

A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) - Was I simply over-influenced by the slew of prizes Egan got for this? Or was it the fact that I went to punk rock concerts and lived in NYC in the late 70s and early 80s? Or that I'm a sucker for great characters, beautiful sentences, and a wonderful clockwork storytelling structure? You guessed it, probably all three, and more. I simply loved this book. Sasha is a great flawed protagonist, supported by a rogue's gallery of messed up music biz habitues united by a love of attitude and wierdness. I even loved the power point chapter and the speculative final chapter.

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (2011) I felt quite sad when I brought the last of the 14 discs in from the car for this, the last of the Wallender tales. Everything felt right: the completion of the complex mystery (which I suspected, thanks to Mankell's masterful clues dropped along the way); the wind-down of Kurt's life, ever true to the depressed personality we have all known, followed, and loved; the relationship with his family, especially Linda, and his love from Riga. It just all felt right. I love the humanity of the guy. Kurt's scenes with the retarded girl, with the retired waitress in the old people's home, the widow of the military historian, and the various people surrounded the military family at the heart of this story, well, they were deep, emotionally resonant, and illustrate how every scene in a Mankell mystery illuminates character and plot in equal measure.

Invisible by Paul Auster (2009) Absorbing from the very first scene to the last, this brilliant, restrained and elegiac puzzle novel puts Auster at the top again in my heart. Invisible is what we are to each other, no matter what we may think. Because of lies we tell to each other, and to ourselves. The visible world of the central character is fairly prosaic -- a non-druggie Columbia student in the late 60s, he gets tangled up with an older couple, French and quite mysterious. We navigate through his life, including his intense relationships with his sister, a complicated visit to Paris where he reconnects with the couple, now separated, and ultimately traverses the rest of the century and beyond as a non-literary person who helps the poor in California. We learn bits and pieces in four parts by three different narrators, and so we really do not know what is true and what is being told in order to protect the secrets that live in the realm of the invisible. I loved this book, which hasn't always been the case with Auster's work, which can be busy and trickish.

When Will there Be Good News? By Kate Atkinson. (2008) I consider CASE HISTORIES one of my favorite literary/mystery hybrids of the decade, so it's no surprise that this one knocked me out. Plotted with complexity growing out of a half-dozen main characters who all suffer from loss, grief and anguish, this novel of contemporary manners is really only nominally a mystery. The real pleasure comes from Atkinson's deep understanding of the human heart. My only regret is that I didn't read the middle of the three novels in the series first. Too bad the TV mini-series made the whole thing predictably formulaic.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000) Pow, this is a multi-cultural tour-de-force by a born storyteller who weaves the development of her many characters through the nineties like an old pro, bringing every strand into full finale that is satisfying in both a literary and human way. The quality of her satire is exceeded only by the appeal of her characters and the richness of her thematic development. One would stand, slack-jawed in awe, except that most of the time the jaws are forming guffaws. Really loved this one.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Inspired by the recent "reading" play ("Gatz"), which I did not get to see in NYC, I picked up this wonderful audio version by Alexander Scourby, one of the great voices. The beauty of Fitzgerald's prose, those perfect sentences and the blank-verse meter are even more apparent than my memory of reading it (which was, after all, decades ago). The plot, it's true, is almost classically "tragic," in the sense that embedded in the soul of the main characters lives a character flaw that, at least in part, leads to the bad outcome, one which of course, works symbolically as well as the definitive deconstruction of the American dream, a house built on sand, a whole people buying the lie in order to succeed. In today's context, of course, it seems quaint. Swindlers on a scale unimaginable back then get away with anything they try, indeed, are rewarded for it, not murdered and certainly not seen as shameful. Ironically, it's the same character defect, is it not? This audiobook was pure enjoyment.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This superb audiobook, brilliantly performed by Joe Morton, reawakened my deep respect for Ellison, whose achievement here is tremendous, literally crackling with vibrancy and insight, pathos and fury, taking us into each phase of the unnamed narrator's life, from his beginnings in the rural and viciously racist south to the patronizing integrationism of an all-black college, to the wildness of a black roadhouse populated by mental patients, to his migration North to NY City where he lives in Harlem and moves in and out of corporate numbness, blue-collar labor and union struggles, and then finally, and pivotally, the Communist Party, where he realizes that he is yet again being used and abused. Despite moments of hope and triumph, his is a journey of grim and Job-like visitations and indignities, illusions and naivete, double- and triple-crosses by both blacks and whites, seductions and betrayals that trample his soul and destroy his mind -- spiraling him down, literally, into 'invisibility'. A jazz riff of luscious language and rage-propelled storytelling, and informed by intense intelligence, INVISIBLE MAN is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and a pivotal achievement in the history of social consciousness. I'm slayed.

The First Rule by Robert Crais (2009) I remember previous Robert Crais mysteries, which starred his groovy laid-back SoCal sleuth Elvis Cole, as light-weight. Fun while they lasted, but not epic or powerful on the order of Macdonald, Connelly, and other favorites. Until now. THE FIRST RULE is the first of his books I've consumed featuring Joe Pike, Cole's hard-as-nails, former soldier of fortune sidekick. The mystery kicks off with what appears to be a routine home invasion gone bad, only it features one of Pike's "guys" back from his days as a contract military operative in places like El Salvador and Africa. It winds up in the middle of a gang war between factions of a Serbian criminal underworld, fascinating in itself. With multiple plot switchbacks, some truly memorable characters, and a deep ethical vein running through Pike's every move, THE FIRST RULE kept me going. A plus on this audiobook is Crais' self-narration, which is excellent.

Art of Immersion by Frank Rose (2011) Frank Rose is a great reporter, which means, he's a storyteller. (I've been reading his stuff for years in WIRED). This shows on every page of this book about the way media are morphing in the age of digital platforms and audience participation. But Rose goes well beyond the fascinating character studies and on-site reportage for which he is known by using these particularities as emblems of our new age. There is a theory of media that emerges from the details of his storytelling, but he doesn't cram it down your throat like so many academicians and special-pleaders. I especially appreciate Rose's respect for the past, even as he hurls us towards the future, from mass culture merchants to the esoteric frontiers of cutting-edge science.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. (2010) As one of a handful of people, evidently, who simply couldn't read THE CORRECTIONS, I approached this Franzen epic with both mild dread and a wisp of hope... maybe this time. Indeed, I devoured the thing whole in three days, a glorious, compulsive, nostalgic dive into a very old-fashioned sprawl of a novel about some not so old-fashioned people, very few of them particularly admirable. Aside from his sheer talent and storytelling bravado, what Franzen has going for him is a profound and often surprising understanding of the psychology of love and need. These people are all very needy, even rock-star Richard who acts like he isn't, but certainly Patty and Walter, the other points of the central triangle in the story. The particularity of their love and cruelties towards each other, driven by both nature and nurture (or lack thereof) is breathtaking, digging backwards in time through several generations of ancestral pain, and then forward as their spawn emerge from childhood just in time to hurt and be hurt. All good novels are political, as well, and Franzen does not disappoint. Perhaps because I agree with most of his critique of contemporary politics, especially what has happened to the environmental movement, but I found myself mentally pumping my fist during the scenes when Walter finally confronts the energy company, amidst his own betrayal of ideals. I also loved the crisp strokes he paints of various boho milieux, such as the punk rock scene, the downtown NY theatre/performance scene, the opportunist GOP war profiteering scene, and liberal Democrats (Patty's mom). Even in the small sections, designed primarily to move the story forward, there is a true and killing aim, tied to character and enough to make a person weep. 

Additional books (four stars) I enjoyed this year:

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

The Keep, by Jennifer Egen

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Macbeth: a Novell by A.J. Hartley

Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

End Games (Aurelio Zen, #11) by Michael Dibdin

Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatti

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, by Henry Jenkins

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis

The Snowman (Harry Hole, #7) by Jo Nesbo

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

The Sentry (Elvis Cole, #12, Joe Pike, #3) by Robert Crais

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America by John McMillan

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Stephen Johnson

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse