Here's the challenge I gave myself, after I was invited to write a brief review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for The Book Studio: think of something to say about this book that hasn't already been said.
It's no easy challenge, since this is the big book of the year, and also since I've already written about the book twice on Litkicks. But I was determined to come up with at least one or two original angles for my Book Studio piece. I was also determined to write about the book and only the book, and not to review the media coverage (as so many other reviewers have done).
Jonathan Franzen's much-awaited novel Freedom hits bookstores tomorrow morning.
I'm about to start reading this book, and will be reviewing it for another publication. I've also been enjoying (for whatever humor value it can provide) a nascent Franzen backlash including a gender-minded protest by Jennifer Weiner and a Twitter parody that pokes fun at the author's perceived arrogance.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction.
1. This image of P. G. Wodehouse's bookshelf is just one of the incidental delights to be found in the BBC's literary video archive, In Their Own Words. Other authors showing their remarkable presence in these historical broadcasts include Virginia Woolf, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, William Golding, Robert Graves and E. M. Forster and J. R. R. Tolkien (via drmabuse).
(Just one minor note about the text accompanying the P. G. Wodehouse interview, in which the shy humorist plays incessantly with his pipe and tries to give honest answers to tough questions: Wodehouse did live in Eastport, on Long Island's East End, but Eastport ain't the Hamptons, not really even close. But what would the BBC know about Long Island?)
2. Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel Freedom is getting major, major news coverage, including the cover of Time magazine (he's the first novelist on the cover of Time since Stephen King ten years ago). I haven't read the novel yet, but I liked his previous family saga The Corrections and am looking forward to reviewing Freedom for another web publication as soon as my review copy shows up. In the meantime, here's a piece from The Millions about all the other writers who have been on the cover of Time since the magazine was founded in 1923.
We’re into the home stretch now in our pondering of Proust -- four volumes down and three to go. We have been introduced to a fascinating and vast cast of characters, from the cook Françoise to the Prince de Guermantes. We have found out that Charlus is gay, and that the Duc de Guermantes is a Dreyfusard. Let’s take a break, then, before we tackle the last three tomes, and reflect on a new addition to the Proustian literature: Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time, by Patrick Alexander.
Outside of Alexander’s offering, there are two books that stand as must-reads to gain insight into Proust’s massive work. The first is Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter, an excellent biography of the author of A la Recherche. The second is How Proust Can Change your Life by Alain de Botton, a witty look at how this author's writings can be applied to everyday living. Certainly there are numerous other books on Proust, but you can safely read these two and remain a serious but sane aficionado. Go beyond these and of course you risk entering into the dark realm of Proustian obsession. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing.
As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley's rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR's readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The "Up Front" column in today's Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.
But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week's front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name "Martin Amis" with "Christopher Hitchens" and you've got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:
Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in "The Pregnant Widow".
Five years ago on this day, Sunday, May 15 2005, I decided to start reviewing the New York Times Book Review on Litkicks. Early that morning I posted the first entry in what has become an enduring series, and a big part of my identity within the literary scene.
I had no idea what I was in for when I began this. I remember sitting in my living room wondering what to blog about that calm Sunday morning, and I remember turning to Caryn and saying "I think I'm gonna review the Book Review every weekend". "Sounds like quite a thrill," she said, and I was off.
Strange currents in the hometown rag today.
When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.
The novel is dead to him, but so what? Can't he just go off and write whatever he wants to write without climbing up on a soapbox to make a speech about it? How does this offbeat preference of his merit a book-length manifesto? Why does this book exist?
-- Laura Miller, on Reality Hunger by David Shields
Laura Miller's question about this controversial book of literary criticism is a fair one, and deserves a serious answer. I wrote a bit about this two weeks ago, but I think I've come up with a better answer this week after attending a talk with David Shields at a Johns Hopkins University writing center Tuesday night.
A casual society of underground/alternative-minded writers calling themselves The Unbearables have been spreading joy and literary wisdom around downtown New York City for as long as I can remember. They protested the cravenness of the New Yorker magazine and the growing commercialism of the surviving Beat Generation writers during the 1990s, and now they're back with The Worst Book I Ever Read, a diverse collection of essays about terrible reading experiences that, I think, many literary folks will relate to. I interviewed ringleader Ron Kolm about this book.
Levi: The Worst Book I Ever Read shows a really eclectic range of choices. We've got the Bible, a dictionary, a 5500 page autobiography by Henry Darger. Michael Carter hates John Locke, and Sparrow picks a psychology book. Were you surprised by the range of responses?
As if I needed more prodding to write about David Shields' Reality Hunger, the book appears in today's New York Times Book Review, respectfully reviewed by Luc Sante, who urges (I nod approvingly here) a calm and sympathetic reading of the controversial work:
On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions. His book may not presage sweeping changes in the immediate future, but it probably heralds what will be the dominant modes in years and decades to come. The essay will come into its own and cease being viewed as the stepchild of literature. Some version of the novel will endure as long as gossip and daydreaming do, but maybe it will become more aerated and less controlling. There will be a lot more creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self- consciousness and high-spirited looting. And reality will be ever more necessary and harder to come by.