What happens to a close, loving family when one member of the family starts to go insane?
Writers have dealt with this before. Sometimes it's a son or daughter, or a brother or sister, or a father or, as in Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish or Susan Henderson's new novel Up From The Blue, it's a mother. Up From The Blue is narrated, Scout-style, by an inquisitive and charming little girl named Tillie Harris who lives with her taciturn older brother, her stern military father and her unpredictable mother, whose illness is worse than any outsiders could imagine. We discover the parameters of the problem as frightened young Tillie does, cringing as she wishfully tries to solve the problem herself and negotiate her mother back from the edge.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman have crafted a surprisingly accessible and engaging story out of three narrative threads: how Allen Ginsberg wrote this poem, how Lawrence Ferlinghetti nearly went to jail for publishing it, and what the words mean. James Franco, clearly tuned in to Ginsberg's wavelength, skillfully re-enacts the poem's famous debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the courtroom scenes that follow (with, predictably, Bob Balaban as the judge) are moving and suspenseful but also blissfully accurate and free of histrionics.
At least one person I know hated the vivid Eric Drooker animations that illustrate the poem's words, but I thought they were fine (though Ralph Bakshi would have been an edgier choice). I can't complain about James Franco's well-informed impersonation of Allen Ginsberg, though having met and talked to Ginsberg a few times (I tell the story here) I don't think Franco gets it completely right. He's just a little too cool and relaxed for the deeply froggy, proto-nerdy Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Franco's smooth operator, Allen Ginsberg was always hip, but he was never cool.
Has anyone misplaced a renaissance? Say, a Germanic one, about two centuries old?
We all might have, according to cultural historian Peter Watson's thick new book The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. It's a big thesis, but the evidence is surprisingly strong. A summary on the book's back cover states the case:
From the end of the Baroque era and the death of Bach to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force -- more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German artists, writers, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly unified country to new and unimagined heights. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation's achievements ever since.
Worst of all was Jens Von Bretzel, a slim, unkempt guy with an army jacket, a luxuriant chabon of black hair, and a "to hell with this crap" demeanor that he barely concealed as he read from 'The Counter Life', his debut novel about a barista with a girlfriend who was too good for him, a future that was drifting towards oblivion, and a lousy attitude that kept getting him into trouble. The novel was based on the decade Von Bretzel had spent working at a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Von Bretzel's work was so much like the stories I was writing that I half suspected he had hacked into my computer and plagiarized my life. Except that Von Bretzel's work was more confident than mine, as if he considered his life worthy of committing to print, while to me, just about every aspect of my own existence seemed wholly unliterary -- how often had agents told me that my protagonists never did anything, that they always waited for things to happen to them?
Almost every character in Adam Langer's very funny, very expert satire The Thieves of Manhattan is either a frustrated writer or a successful one. The book's likable hero writes sensitive short stories that nobody cares to publish. He's bursting with jealousy over the success of a ridiculously popular memoirist who resembles James Frey, and he's so accustomed to defeat that he's barely surprised when his own girlfriend hits it big with a debut novel and leaves him for the memoirist. But literary striving is a complete, inescapable way of life to this character; even his vocabulary is riddled with references to the pantheon of popular and classic authors he yearns to join. A "chabon" (as in the quote above) is a wavy haircut, a "gogol" is an overcoat, and "franzens" and "eckleburgs" describe two different varieties of eyeglasses.
(We're always excited to run a rave review on the rare occasion that one is deserved. Here's Garrett Kenyon on the latest work by a rising talent. -- Levi)
In 2005, while Americans of every stripe anxiously watched distant lands suffer the disastrous whims of our previous president, a minor miracle occurred stateside, right under our noses. That year, a young Russian-American writer named Olga Grushin published that rarest of literary accomplishments: a debut novel bearing the undeniable redolence of a modern classic. The Dream Life of Sukhanov was everything a first-novel shouldn't be: tight, timeless -- confidently executed with the subtlety and depth of a seasoned master. Some critics were so stunned by Sukhanov, they jokingly questioned whether it could really be the work of a novice. Another admitted he "felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends." He probably didn't. Which is unfortunate, because, by 2005, the firmament of American lit had become so reliably unremarkable that too few sets of eyes were paying attention when Sukhanov punctured the darkness and streaked across the sky.
A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
I've been feeling down about literary fiction lately, so I'm glad I checked out an unassuming novel called Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames, a Brooklyn writer who grew up in Buffalo, New York. With a frothy winter beer on its cover and a title that recalls Vincent Gallo, the novel appears on first glance to be about the quirky people of a small cold American city. In fact Buffalo Lockjaw has a different purpose, though its Buffalo charm is a hit as well.
We glimpse the purpose on page 4, when the book's slacker hero reveals that a copy of Assisted Suicide for Dummies is in the back seat of his car. He's returned to Buffalo (from Brooklyn) to spend time with his family and with his mother, whose mind has been completely destroyed by early onset Alzheimer's disease.
There are biographies, and then there are psychological biographies. The fallacies and hazards of the psychobiography form are easy to name, but the form can produce miracles when used well. Donald E. Pease's Theodor Seuss Geisel, a brief, spirited new study of the life and work of the great Dr. Seuss, provides a satisfying and surprising look at the motivations and half-hidden meanings behind classic children's books like Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The biographer brings out the heavy psychological equipment to analyze the first Dr. Seuss children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 when the author was 33 years old. The book depicts a child with a vivid imagination facing off against a stern father who rejects his son's artistic spirit. Pease argues convincingly that young Theodor Seuss Geisel's moral battle with his strict father shaped everything about his work, and that it was the very intensity of this father-son battle that gave the early Dr. Seuss books their power and energy.
You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn't want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I've read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.
Reason two is a tad more subjective: I've noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly's mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn't have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.
Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that's getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth -- which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today's literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.