Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review 2

There were a number of books in the past year that, for whatever reason, just didn’t hit the sweet spot for me. Some of these books were overhyped. Most weren’t reviewed for this blog---I can’t write about a book when I don’t have much enthusiasm for it one way or another. I didn’t finish the others (my tolerance for books that don’t work for me has gotten pretty low in recent years. I can read 200 to 300 pages, struggling to work against waning interest and boredom, before throwing my hands up in defeat). So why compile such a list in the first place? Since this is a review in the past year of reading it makes sense to look back on those experiences that didn’t work out as well as I thought they would. I enter a relationship with a book with great enthusiasm, finding in those first few pages an exciting chance to explore a new adventure. I don’t read expecting to be disappointed (though on those cases where books have been overhyped I might admit to being a bit suspicious). So I compile this list not to be a hater, but rather to note which books didn’t move me and why. But more than that, each book, whether loved or not, explains a little bit more about who I am as a person and as a reader.

One book that had gotten a lot of hype in the previous two years was Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I thought the premise was intriguing enough, but in the end I was underwhelmed by the effort. There were so many possibilities that Bender could have taken with that premise, but she instead settled on the tried-and-true route of far too many contemporary literary writers: suburban ennui. The subplot revolving around the narrator’s brother, Joseph, had far more potential and I wished Bender could have centered the novel around him since it was apparent that that was where her interest lay. As I wrote in my review, I did enjoy reading the novel, but its unfulfilled promise kept it from being a truly satisfying experience.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning A Visit from the Good Squad was another novel hyped within the past year that I read but did not review for the blog. Much has been written about its form and how it sought to push the envelope in novel structure. Since A Visit from the Goon Squad was a collection of interlinked short stories, I failed to see what was so revolutionary about it. One chapter, told entirely in Powerpoint, offered a glimpse of what Egan was attempting to accomplish, but overall I wasn’t as impressed as others.  I don’t begrudge Ms. Egan’s Pulitzer, but I do think that we have reached a point in the development of the novel that everyone is looking for anyone to push it forward and breathe new life into the form. As a reader and a writer, I am interested in the question of what new configurations can be got out of the novel, so I’m curious to see whether Egan will continue to explore that path with future efforts.

I’ve just started reading Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection of nonfiction works The Ecstasy of Influence, Nonfiction, etc., making this the second Lethem book I read this year (in by a squeaker). The first was his 2009 novel Chronic City. While I appreciated reading it for the most part, I didn't find it earthshattering either. Like Colson Whitehead (whose latest I partly review below), Michael Chabon, Kevin Brockmeier, Aimee Bender, George Saunders and other contemporary writers, Lethem is interested in (re)blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction. Part realist fiction, part fantasy/sci-fi, Chronic City takes place in an alternate universe otherwise known as Manhattan, where an escaped tiger and an international team of astronauts stranded in space, one of whom happens to be the girlfriend of the novel’s hero Chase Insteadman, a former child star who occasionally does voiceover work, become a part of the urban landscape. As intiguing as that premise might sound, in the end, the pieces didn’t gel. Perkus Tooth, a culture critic who intrigues Insteadman was introduced as a wildly eccentric free spirit whose profound statements on culture (particularly on Marlon Brando) was meant to leave everyone who comes in contact with him in awe, but instead he turned out to be a bore. I was often left wondering why Insteadman was willing to bend over backwards for such a nondescript man (Hari Kunzru's review offers a huge clue that I certainly did not pick up on while reading). The mystery concerning Insteadman’s supposed girlfriend and a mesmerizing chaldron didn’t have much impact either. Still, Chronic City held my interest, had some interesting turns, and was funny at parts.

I wanted very much to like Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel. I’m a fan of Whitehead’s works and have read practically everything he’s written (The Intuitionist will always be one of my favorite novels of the last fifteen years). And yet like the others on this list I was disappointed. I’ve been debating about whether this is a failure of the novel or a failure of my own expectations. Granted, when I heard that he had written a zombie novel, I went in expecting a genre novel with a literary bent. What I got instead was a literary novel that happened to be about zombies. While reading I was left with one question: does the desire to make genre fiction more literate overwhelm what makes genre fiction so attractive to readers in the first place: larger-than-life characters, plot, action? I’m not suggesting that genre fiction can’t be literary or vice versa, but I also wonder how much the readers’ expectations limit both literary and genre fiction for both readers and writers (or is this simply a failing of mine and not others?). These are interesting questions that deserve far more space than I am allowing here. Needless to say, as much as I wanted to enjoy Zone One (Colson's wry observations about pop culture notwithstanding), I did not, and wound up not finishing it. Perhaps one day I’ll pick it up again and read it without any literary preconceptions to get in the way. 

Isabel Allende’s novel Island Beneath the Sea, about love and political intrigue during the Haitian Revolution had, like the other novels, a lot of intiguing potential, but played like a Harlequin romance set against an historical backdrop.  In the past, Allende has written urgently of historical subjects, most particularly of her personal background growing up in Chile (Allende was related to the late Chilean president Salvador Allende). This latest effort seemed a bit of a trifle and lacked any sense of urgency, despite the important events shaping both the Carribbean and American landscapes.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, more than any on this list, had received the most fanfare when it was published in 2010. It’s still discussed and written about on blogs and print publications, often to appreciative, analytical reviews. Even the president weighed in by picking up an advance copy while on vacation last year. And yet it goes down as one of those novels I simply could not get through to the end. While it started off fine enough, I soon found it harder and harder to keep turning the pages as the novel got bogged down in the self-absorbed musings of its main characters. After a while, I stopped caring. It wasn’t so much that its main characters were unlikable. Unlikable characters are certainly not a deficit to any novel. Rather it was because they were both unlikable and boring. Novels about the upper middle-class who have everything they could ever possibly want, but are still miserable might have been revolutionary when John Cheever and Richard Yates started writing (or for that matter Gustave Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Henry James, etc., etc.), but why does this subject still earn critical praise now when very little new is wrenched  from it (or do I even need to ask?) It became apparent that the novel was more a hook on which Franzen could hang his musings about liberal politics and people who sell out their principles than an actual story in which characters became more than just archetypes to which readers can nod with hipster recognition. Unlikable or not, I needed to care what happened to these characters and I simply did not.

There were certainly plenty of other books that I read, both with relish and disinterest that I either did not review or did not have any particular bent toward. All in all, 2011 was a productive year for reading and I look forward to seeing what will turn up in my hands next year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Year in Review

Last year, I wanted to write a “year in reading” review for my new blog. I never got around to it and, since I had only started blogging a few months earlier, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to review anyway. Now that I’ve got a whole year under my belt, I thought I’d take the time out this final week of 2011 to look back on the books that impressed me, made me think, or didn’t have any impression on me at all (there were quite a few like that).

Sizing up the last twelve months is a pasttime at the end of year. It’s a way for people to review all their triumphs and failures, things done and things left to be done. Reading has been that way for me as well. There were plenty of books I wanted to read but didn’t for any number of reasons. But I’ve not only had a chance to read some pretty great books, I’ve also had the pleasure to review them for this blog and for other sites as well. This post will address the books that I enjoyed and would highly recommend.


I’ve read plenty of fiction books in the last year that were great to good to middling. The ones that stayed with me, sunk their teeth into my marrow and left their mark, have made this past reading year such a revelation. The book that lingers in my thoughts is Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Jones’ third novel creates an indelible collection of characters whose very heartbeats continue to thump subtly in my head. Told from the perspectives of two half-sisters whose father’s act of bigamy creates a tenuous but tense thread between them, Silver Sparrow addresses the compromises people make in the name of love with an uncompromising glare. What impressed me most about Ms. Jones’s story was how she refused to rely on any of the cliches or cheap stereotypes that such a story would provoke. These are not characters we are meant to despise or put in a simplistic box, but rather to embrace and understand even with their brittle flaws. 

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz is another great entry in the fiction category. This quiet, slower burner should read like genre fiction, a plunge into the shadowy back alleys of San Bernardino and Hollywood, a noirish take on reality and fantasy. Instead it is a quiet meditative look at dreams unfulfilled. What You See In the Dark, a tale of love, murder, and the cinema, continues to linger and have its sway over me. I had the real pleasure of interviewing author Muñoz for Creosote Journal, which was certainly a highlight of my blogging year.

While I gave Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel a mixed review, I admire her willingness to push the envelope in terms of novel structure and form. Less a novel than a series of interlocking tales, she uses various forms from short story to play to court transcriptions, comic strip panels, and others to bring to life a little known era in Asian American political history. But more than that, I Hotel is the story of California and of America. Whatever flaws the novel might have, they are more than made up for its tenacity.

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar is a fascinating look at Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of the fierce and uncompromising Araceli N. Ramirez, a housekeeper who is thrown headlong into the marital drama of her employers. Anyone who is from Los Angeles will recognize this love poem to that sprawling, diverse, and always-evolving city.


There are a few books of nonfiction that have had an impact on me this year. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is one such example. Aside from giving the rundown on how the definition of whiteness began in antiquities and continues to this day, what I remember and enjoy most about Painter’s work is that she is a born storyteller. Her ability to bring to life what could have been dry facts and research into fascinating stories about the history of Europe and America as seen through a racialized prism is superlative and thoroughly engaging.

Manning Marable’s long-awaited biography on the intriguing Malcolm X is another work of nonfiction that made waves this year. A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X uncovered a lot of ground that The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley could not. What emerges is a man of complexity, a work in political and social progress, but someone far more human and flawed than previous hagiographies. Marable, who passed away this year just as his tome was being published, had an engaging but unobtrusive writing style that allowed his subject to burn defiantly through the work itself.

Journalist Isabel Wilkerson covers the scope of 20th Century African American history through her retelling of the Great Migration, a period of social revolt as African Americans migrated out of the south between World War I and the 1970s to seek better opportunities in the north and west. The Warmth of Other Suns focuses on three individuals---Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster---who left their homes and families in the deep south and sought economic opportunities and social freedom in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. As personal and intimate a historical account as you'll ever read, Gladney, Starling, and Pershing Foster, by the end of the book, will have become like good, old friends.

Like Irvin Painter, Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD is also a born storyteller as revealed in his 2011 Pulitzer prizewinning account of the biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Considering that the 571 page book uncovers a lot of historical as well as medical and scientific ground, this skill proves quite adept at helping laypersons such as myself to understand the often complicated and very complex web that makes up cancerous genes and the medicine developed to combat them. The Emperor of All Maladies was eye opening. Months after I read it, I still recollect it whenever I chance upon an article about cancer or cancer research.

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A Wilding didn’t get the kind of fanfare that the previous nonfiction works had when they were published, and that is a disservice not only to the author Sarah Burns but most importantly to the subject itself, which, over twenty years later, deserves a historical review. Covering the story of the four young black and hispanic men who were unjustifiably charged and sentenced for the rape of a central park jogger in the late 1980s, Burns, like a good investigative journalist, covers all the grounds which led to the conviction and reveals how citizens of a city mired in racial politics and animosities willingly believed the men were guilty despite a shred of evidence linking them to the victim. The book’s ending, a bittersweet one with the eventual release and exoneration of the now grown men, continues to haunt. Will this happen again? Burns asks. Considering that the NYPD is now currently under investigation for its racial profiling practices, the answer should give everyone pause.  

Francisco Goldman’s tender memoir Say Her Name is like a sad song---it stays with you long after the last refrain. Haunting, elegiac, and beautiful, Goldman’s momento mori to his late wife, Aura Estrada, is like the memorial to her that he kept in his New York apartment: full of tiny, intimate details of the life they shared. While there were moments I questioned the appropriateness of Goldman's revelations, I was thoroughly touched and saddened by his loss, as though I knew these people and their grief was my own. Very few works of art touch me this way, and Say Her Name is but one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Forgotten Holiday Specials

Christmas is a week away and the networks have been airing their usual holiday chestnuts like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I couldn’t wait for these holiday specials to air on TV because then I knew Christmas really was on the way. I remember lying on the white shag rug in the living room with my younger brother, glued to the huge TV set while Charlie Brown and his friends broke into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to inaugurate the holiday season. Back in the day our TV set was actually a piece of furniture, a massive thing that also had a stereo (we'd play over and over again my Dad’s Christmas album, with its selections of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “A Christmas Song,” by Nat King Cole [is there any other version worth listening to?]). The stereo was in fact in mono, so the sound had a tinny quality to it, but even that tinniness added something unique to the experience. When we turned the volume up real loud, Charlie, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Snoopy and all the others sounded as if they were actually in my living room. With our white aluminum Christmas tree sparkling in the background (hey, it was the ‘70s!), it wasn’t hard to get into the Christmas spirit.

But while these four specials have become the pinnacle of all animated holiday specials, I also remember the less popular, but no less charming cartoons that seem to have fallen by the wayside since and are no longer aired on TV. Now, that might have something to do with changing styles and attitudes. It’s a given that Christmas specials, especially the older ones, have a treacly quality to them that make them out-of-fashion in today’s era of hipster cynicism. Whatever the reason, I miss some of these specials. The only way I can view any of them now is on Youtube, but that isn't quite the same. I’ve listed some of these specials for today's blog. It’s not a Top Ten list, so there is no particular order in their arrangement. They’re just a list of specials I remember (or in some cases even vaguely recall) from my childhood.

Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol

This holiday special originally aired in 1962, which makes it the first animated Christmas special for TV (take that, Charlie Brown!). And with its Broadway pedigree (lyricist and composer Jules Styne and Bob Merrill wrote the music), it boasts some of the most memorable songs. They used to play this on TV as regularly as they used to play It’s A Wonderful Life, back before NBC won exclusive rights to the movie. But unlike Frank Capra’s traditional holiday film, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol hasn’t aired on TV in decades, which is a shame. While not exactly the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic novella (it actually switches the chronology of The Ghost of Christmases’ Past and Present), it still hits all the right notes. While the animation is passable, the songs and voices are excellent.

Santa and the Three Bears

I vaguely recall watching this when I was a kid. But when I watched this a couple of years back online, parts of it came back to me like a pleasant, but vague memory of childhood's past. A sweet tale about a couple of bear cubs who discover Christmas, Santa and the Three Bears has a charm that is all but missing in most recent holiday specials. The two cubs are as cute as can be and Nana bear is voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, most known for voicing Wilma Flintstone.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas is a cute entry from the 1970s with Tom Smothers, Barbara Feldon and Artie Johnson doing voice duties. Ted E. Bear, an employee at a honey factory, had always believed there was such a thing as Christmas. But being a bear and living in Bear Town, he had no way of knowing since he and the other bears hibernate during the winter. Determined to find out if the rumors are true, Ted leaves for the city to find out about Christmas. Based on the children’s book by John Barrett, this animated holiday special is about as rare as the others on this list. I don’t think I’ve seen it aired on TV since the 1970s. There might be a good reason why not. After all, it is a bit dated (lots of references to astrology). However, as I wrote before, it is cute and the ending, when Ted finally finds out about what Christmas is really about, is a heart tugger.

A Christmas Carol

This 1969 special by Richard Williams is one of the few animated short films that attempts to faithfully adapt Dickens’ novella. What makes this special so distinctive is its impressionistic animation. Some of the scenes are gorgeously rendered, bringing to life a Dickensian style that is so suited to the tale. It also captures some of the more darker aspects of the story, such as the frightening visit from Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas future. Alistair Sim voices Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yogi Bear’s First Christmas

Yogi Bear and Boo Boo celebrate Christmas at Jellystone Park with an assortment of friends like Cindy Bear, Snaggletooth, and Huckleberry Hound. Hardly a classic, but this syndicated animated special played a lot on TV when I was young, so it hardly seems like Christmas without it.

Fat Albert’s Christmas Special

The Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a given in my household. At the time it was the one of a few animated TV shows that featured black characters doing regular things, like learning important life lessons and all that. So when this holiday-themed special aired in 1977, we were all over it. Sure, it has all the cliches: allusions to the birth of Jesus; Scrooge-like figure who needs to learn the meaning of Christmas, etc. Still, like Donnie Hathaway’s perennial classic “This Christmas,” Fat Albert’s Christmas Special was a nice alternative for those of us who wanted a little soul in our Christmas holiday specials.

Yes, Virginia, There is A Santa Claus

There are actually two versions of this classic tale: the original 1970s special and a remake done recently in CGI. I’ve never seen the CGI version and have no interest in doing so. My memories of the original are too strong. It’s not like the animation was great or anything. In fact, it was pretty subpar for 1970s standards (and that’s not really saying much since 1970s TV animation wasn't exactly a stellar period). Still there’s something real and heartfelt about this little special. Based on the real life story of Virginia O’Hanlon, a little girl in New York who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun to ask him if Santa Claus really existed, this special brought to heart the reply that O’Hanlon eventually received, one that has become a classic, true Christmas tale.

The Snow Queen

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Snow Queen is about two children, Gerta and Kay, who are separated one snowy evening by the evil Snow Queen. After infecting his heart with a sliver of cold, the Snow Queen whisks young Kay on her reindeer-driven sleigh to her castle of ice. Young Gerta travels far and wide and meets a cast of characters to rescue her friend from the evil queen. This classic animated tale is neither holiday-themed nor an American TV production, but was rather produced in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. Every year, the local stations in my area would play an English-dubbed version during the holidays. I became enchanted by this tale, but also with the gorgeous animation. It isn't played on TV anymore, as far I can tell, but it has developed a devoted following among fans who have either seen it on TV years ago or who have watched it since on VHS or DVD.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fontana and Levinson Team Up Again for New A&E Series

Last week, A&E announced a development deal with producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson to produce a new half-hour cop drama called The Box. According to Digital Spy, episodes of the series, if picked up, “will focus on a small ensemble of detectives and their interactions with a key suspect or witness.”

This is great news for fans of the 1990s series Homicide: Life on the Street, which was also produced by Fontana and Levinson. Anyone who’s seen that show knows that its greatest dramatic pinnacles occurred in the interrogation room, otherwise referred to as “the Box.” That show dealt with the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications that arose out of techniques detectives use in getting confessions from suspects.

1996-1997 Cast of Homicide: Life on the Street

Nobody on Homicide could get a more thrilling confession both in the box and on TV than Andre Braugher’s Det. Frank Pembleton, who bar none set the standard for TV cops in the years since the series debuted in 1993. To watch Braugher putting the squeeze on suspects in the interrogation room was a good half of what made this NBC drama so unbelievably great. Needless to say, I’m a fan, so I’ll be looking forward to Levinson and Fontana’s latest collaboration.

Monday, December 5, 2011

And in This Corner...

Literary bouts are pretty much par for the course in the world of literature and there have been some pretty good match-ups. Only recently there was the dust-up between Jonathan Lethem and James Wood, the literary critic whose mixed review of Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago inspired an essay that examined the role of critics and the expectations on both readers and writers alike (the essay, "The Disappointment Author," can be found in his latest collection of essays The Ecstacy of Influence).

Now jumping into the fray are two literary heavyweights Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. This latest ringside bout occurred after Vendler wrote a scathing review for The New York Review of Books of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetrywhich Dove edited. The former Poet Laureate replies in a letter to the editor. Without having read Ms. Vendler's review, I cannot say in detail what her objections were to the anthology, but Dove does lay out a pretty well-thought out response to the objections she raises about the review. But a more important point at which she levels her sharp scalpel (and which Lethem likewise addresses in his essay) is the role of the critic and the recognition of intent and expectation in literary works. This is an important question, especially in light of the current economic situation in an industry that is proving more indifferent to critics and book reviewers alike. Should the critic measure her analyses/reviews based on the writer's intent and whether the author successfully or unsuccessfully fulfilled those intentions? Or should the critic's expectations of what literature ought to achieve be the basis for determining whether a singular work reaches and/or transcends those expectations? And what ought writers and readers expect from a reviewer in determining which books are worth their time and effort?

As a reviewer on this blog, I find myself weighing more in the corner of intent---this is mostly due to the fact that I am a writer myself and am always preoccupied with my intentions in whatever I am working on. Whether I liked the work or not, I am most interested in whether or not the work achieved what it set out to achieve.

However anyone stands on this issue, I'm sure it will be a subject that writers, critics, and readers alike will be grappling with well into the next year.