Review: Tabloid City, by Pete Hamill

Tabloid City
by Pete Hamill
288 pgs
Little, Brown & Co.
May 5, 2011 . $26.99
In his new novel, Tabloid City, author Pete Hamill explores the interconnectivity of the big city on a molecular level, switching from one point of view to the next, combining the details into a veritable detective’s pad of suspects, dates, times, witnesses and motives.

Almost ten years after the tragedy of 9/11 Hamill dictates an unsolicited terrorist plot against a tiny spot on the map called Manhattan, not far from ground zero, all in the background of a technology war (not dissimilar in mode from distribution changes happening just this past month at the New York Times).

In case the setting didn’t make Hamill’s place of residence obvious, the proof is in the details. Take, for example, the doo-wop group that Sam Briscoe (the closest thing we have to a protagonist in all of this) encounters on the 6 train – they’re as real as the train. Or take Briscoe’s reflection on the MegaMillions ad.

These things are not the watchful eyes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s T.J. Eckleberg—they are and were there.

It is these very real markers on Hamill’s road map that make the story so relatable and so real. As the cover suggests, we could have passed any one of these characters on the street and been none the wiser. And while the format is at first a little jarring and somewhat distancing, it is also disarming, denying the reader a need to necessarily side with one character or the other, one motive or another. The reader is, instead, enlisted as a silent member of the jury in a case settled out of court.

The end result is a full story, without flourish, without prejudice, a 3-D picture—no hearsay or lies on the stand necessary. That reality leaves little to fabrication or imagination and once the tale is told, you couldn’t really ask for more.


Review: French Leave, by Anna Gavalda

Publication Date: 4/26/11
144 pgs. $15
Trade Paperback

International bestseller Anna Gavalda (I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere; Hunting and Gathering) is a master of joyful banter and cheek. Her most recent jaunt, French Leave (published by le dilettante in France as L’Échappée belle in 2009) is Europa Editions’ newest translation import, helped along by expert translator Alison Anderson (A Novel Bookstore). Though a short novel, French Leave exudes a sparkling wit marked by an eccentric enthusiasm, providing a brief glance into the world of adult sibling affection, of growing up, of familial likeness and joy.

A take on the journey novel, it all begins when the laid back eldest brother Simon and his acidic wife Carine make an unplanned detour on the way to a family wedding in order to pick up the narrator, his youngest sister, Garance. What immediately follows is a bitter account of Carine’s own family, and the disdain they have for the one she married into. After a volley of conspicuous insults are hurled from the front seat to the back, another detour is announced, to pick up Garance’s older sister, Lola. Carine’s irritation grows, but the explosion comes when Simon and his sisters make the executive decision to circumvent their cousin’s wedding, and instead visit their youngest brother, Vincent; they take a literal French leave, abandoning Carine at the church without any warning.

As true siblings will know, these brothers and sisters’ interactions are like a secret code, a clandestine world that we’re invited to, with a few exceptions, i.e. when Garance says: “We swapped sister stories. I’ll skip that scene. We have too many shortcuts and grunts. Besides, without the soundtrack, it’s meaningless. All you sisters out there will know what I mean.” …which is a perfect assessment of the way the book reads – a series of inside jokes and knowing glances. And when the story ends, and their leave is over, and you know the spring of their young adulthood has come to a close, it may have the effect of saying goodybe, but it’s satisfying; you can already see what lies ahead of them on their separate paths, because you're in on the joke, too.


Review: A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossè

"For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror, grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well-known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.
But those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to think that they have the power to radiate all by themselves. …
We want necessary books, books we can read the day after a funeral, when we have no tears left from all our crying, when we can hardly stand for the pain; books that will be there like loved ones when we have tidied a dead child’s room and copied out her secret notes to have them with us, always, and breathed in her clothes hanging in the wardrobe a thousand times, and there is nothing left to do; books for those nights when no matter how exhausted we are we cannot sleep, and all we want is to tear ourselves away from obsessive visions; books that have heft and do not let us down …
We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.
We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise.
We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost; his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken.
We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.
We want books that leave nothing out; neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs
And even if there is only one such book per decade, even if there is only one … every ten years, that would be enough. We want nothing else."
This is the message, the moral and the mantra of Laurence Cossé's ninth missive, A Novel Bookstore, published as an English translation by Alison Anderson in 2010 by Europa Editions (originally in France by Èditions Gallimard, Paris as Au bon roman in 2009). The message is true - we crave good books, good literature. On occasion a book with a decorative cover might catch our eye, but it's not the covers we read, or read for: it, as with most things, is what's inside that really counts - not to discount beautifully 
crafted editions of good books - they're most welcome.

Like most good books, this one has a little bit of everything - romance, heartache (those two, however, are not always mutually inclusive), mystery, drama... But not in an austere fashion. The premise has an ounce of literary swagger, but it is also humble. Its narrative style is splendid but simple, its prose is satisfying, even in its somewhat clumsy English (I wish I knew French... I'm sure it's divine in French.) And it aspires to be only what it is - un bon roman, rich in character and poise.

It's the story of some idyllic owners of an idyllic bookstore - one that aspires to only sell good books. The selection is made by a committee of anonymous (though not to the reader, nor to the bookstore owners) authors who are each asked to make a list of 600 good novels. Their lists are integrated to make one master list, the contents of which are then stocked and shelved. This isn't Borders or Barnes and Noble or Gibert Joseph. This is not lollipops and digital art. This is honey, soft snowy peaks and green moss - as close to perfection as you can get. And, like honey will, it attracts the flies - novelists,  journalists, bibliophiles. Hell, I would shop there. But it also attracts a lot of negative energy.

Like Jane Eyre or Harry Potter, the book store is the titular hero of its story - it embodies goodness. In labeling itself as "The Good Novel" bookstore, one assumes that it sells what it presumes to be good novels, and everything else must be... well... not good. And like those other heroes and heroines, the store (its owners, employees and committee) come under the attack of an unseen antagonist - a villain with an endless supply of vitriol and ill-humor, driven by jealousy, pride and conceit.

There is a thriller at the core, but it's so much more than that. To borrow a bias from the novel, this is not a Dan Brown blockbuster thriller mega fun time extravaganza. Le Figaro Magazine called it "A hymn to fine literature"; I call it a veritable love song to the written word in 3-part harmony with 3-dimensional lyrics, the kind of fairytale that can only exist in reality.

It is purely, simply, without inhibition, without being violent or explicit, a good novel... a pleasurable novel, an excellent novel. The kind of book that, when one gets to the end, it feels heavier, thicker, as if you've left part of yourself behind, between the leaves, among the darkly printed words, curled up beneath the narrow sweep of an italicized comma.


Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, by Mark Twain and W. Bill Czolgosz

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has always been the subject of controversy. Many conservative critics believe it should be banned from schools and libraries because of its content. For those who’ve never read it, the story takes place along the Mississippi river prior to the Civil War and as such contains speech in the vernacular, some regionalism and some terms of local color. That’s a literary term, not a pun.

In the eye of the critical storm is Twain’s use of the word “nigger”, though it should be noted that the book and its main characters are anti-racist and, given the period in which it takes place and the period in which it was written, it is actually apropos. This year, an edition of the book was published by “NewSouth” which replaced the offending word with the slightly less incendiary “slave,” though the two are not synonymous and carry entirely different connotations. For one thing, while the former is descriptor, the latter is, for all intents and purposes, an occupation.* For another, there are historical implications with both words that are completely disregarded in supplanting one for the other. I discussed this back in January.

Those same critics, however, will probably enjoy W. Bill Czolgosz’s zombified version which removes the familiar moniker and replaces it, not with slave, but with an invention of the zombie world. This is not to say that Czolgosz makes all black people zombies. His omission is a means to an end. The zombie illness (Huck calls it the fissythis, which Ms. Watson corrects as Phthisis) that leads to zombification can create either subdued living dead or manic living dead. In between the actual death and reanimation, the deceased’s family place the body in a bag (and hang it from a tree or something similar) and the next day the zombie is either patiently waiting to be let out, or behaving much like the proverbial cat trying to claw out of the literal bag. Subsequently, the reanimated persons are called “baggers.” They can be any race and any gender. Czolgosz pursues the concept that, once the fissythis was full-blown, the slaves (not a euphemism) were emancipated, and the baggers were enslaved in their place. The idea being that, since they’re already dead, what harm could slavery do?

In Ben H. Winter’s mash-up of Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Colonel Brandon (whom Marianne does not love at first for his age and propriety) is affected by the sea monster affliction, or whatever Winters calls it… he’s got a Cthulu face. This complicates the conflict in Marianne’s affections and elicits a more sexualized interpretation of Brandon’s differences from other men.

Czolgosz does the same thing with Jim – being black, he’s already different from the other people at the forefront of the story. Top that with his being a zombie, and the consequences multiply. Huck must worry, not only for Jim’s safety as a runaway, but for his own well-being—after all, Jim is a brain-hungry zombie, all alone with Huck on the raft.

Tensions are heightened, to say the least, and Jim’s humanity, like Brandon’s, means something else. In the original, it served as a parry to the entrenched racism of the period. Here though, that humanity has a violent side. It doesn’t really serve the novel well. Obviously, Czolgosz was looking for an excuse, in a world where zombies are the slaves, to have Jim end up on that raft. The obvious solution was to make Jim both black and a bagger (in other words, he was a slave before and he's a slave now, too). The change yields nothing positive, and takes away from the historical poignancy. And more to the point, in the scene where Huck slaughters a pig in order to engineer his escape, this book replaces the pig with a young “bagger.” The humanity line here is blurred at best, and that alteration doesn’t serve any real purpose in the long run. Killing a pig is different from killing someone who shares a condition with the person you're closest to.

This isn’t racism… but in removing the racist attitudes against one group of people and replacing it with a kind of semi-racism against the zombies (encouraging inhumane treatment just because they’re already dead – this, by the by, backfires because hey, they’re zombies, and zombies gotta eat) the directness of the original satire is lost and the result is just a confusing amalgamation of Twain prose and zombie annoyance. Maybe I’m a snob, but I happen to think that satire that makes sense and hits the mark is a lot more interesting than throwing the satire out the window just to make a quick buck on another mash-up.

*Contributor credit: Jessica Pruett-Barnett


Monday Mailbox #4

Monday Mailbox is a weekly segment wherein I cover my most recent acquisitions, whether via purchase, library, early reviewers, Librarything.com Member Givaway Program or gift.

I'm terribly silly. I got a bunch of books in the last two weeks, but between going to the doctor, and having an odder than usual work schedule, and house guests...it just got put off. So that brings us to now, while Monday still has another few minutes.

But before I get to the books I did receive, I should mention that there's one more book that should be on this list, though between my new neighbor, my landlord, and UPS it seems to have vanished. From now on, I should just have UPS send to my work address. Only one company has sent books to me via UPS in the past, and that was Little, Brown & Co. who so graciously sent me a copy of Pete Hamill's Tabloid City, the review of which will be posted in the week prior to its publication on May 5th of this year. They had also intended to send me a copy of Tina Fey's new book Bossypants which just came out this past week. I believe that's the package that has now gone missing. So I shall wait and see if it turns up...maybe leave angry messages on my landlord's machine or something. In any case, if it does turn up, there'll be a review. If it doesn't turn up, I shall be sad. Also, still no sign of Quirk's Dreadfully Ever After. Lost in the mail? Perhaps. Coworker ate it? Maybe. Never sent? Definite possibility.

And now for the happier tidings:

First up, care of NYRB, is a new edition Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater,  a compelling black comedy about a woman - wife to unfaithful men, mother to countless children - who finds herself sharing the details of her life with a psychiatrist, and with the reader. Publication date: April 26, 2011.

Next up, care of Europa Editions, is Anna Gavalda's French Leave (translated from the original French by Alison Anderson), a humorous book about growing up and finding one's future by revisiting the past. Publication date: May 20, 2011.

While we're on that subject, is that really what Back to the Future is about? Is it all about showing Marty the way to his future? I think it is.

Sorry. Distraction. Anyway...

Next we have Judith Kelman's Summer of Storms which I received as a gift from the gods of my building. You see, I live in a 4-story apartment building in the Bronx, just a few miles shy of Westchester, and right by the train. It's not a fancy building and it's not luxury condos, but the people here take care of themselves, and sometimes those of us who aren't rolling in it so much get hand-me-downs...sometimes it's furniture, sometimes books, bags, toys, games... at Christmas there was a whole box of various heels (I'm pretty sure that came from my upstairs drag queen neighbor... none of them were my size... sadface) and assorted new games and toys. Once there was a partial set of illustrated encyclopedias about WWI. They now live on the bottom shelf of my new bookshelves. But this time it was one book (oh and some robot game I opted out on)... it doesn't look like anything too wonderful, but I'm sure I'll enjoy it at some point this summer when I'm at the beach. The jacket reads:
Anna Jamieson was only three when her five-year-old sister, Julie, was murdered while her family slept through a tempestuous hurricane, one of many in a season dubbed the Summer of Storms. For thirty years, Anna has been haunted by mental pictures of that night--crude composites that remain grainy and idistinct. But now she has returned to New York City, the scene of that horrendous, unsolved crime, and events are about to unfold that will make her fuzzy memories all to frighteningly clear. As Anna's work as a photojournalist exposes the dark underside of a glittering city, she unwittingly crosses paths with a fiendishly clever killer. While her search for the truth races toward a chilling conclusion, she must distinguish between allies and enemies, and realize that, ultimately, there is no one to trust but herself. 

My money's on the father.

Finally we have (and I swear this one is not a joke) The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films, by Amy Clarke. I got this one via Librarything.com Early Reviewers, though it actually came out in October. Should be amusing, if nothing else. Here, for your amusement (just to prove there IS something amusing here) are the essay titles:

"Luminous and Liminal: Why Edward Shines"

"Narrative Layering and 'High-Culture' Romance" (not as funny)
"Carlisle's Cross: Locating the Post-Secular Gothic"
"Eco-Gothics for the Twenty-First Century"
"Noble Werewolves or Native Shape-Shifters?"
"Abstinence, American Style" (are you dying yet?)
"Is Twilight Mormon?"
"Bella and the Choice Made in Eden"
"Bella and Boundaries, Crossed and Redeployed"
"Sleeping Beauty and the Idolized Undead: Avoiding Adolescence"
"Why We Like Our Vampires Sexy"
"Forks, Washington: From Farms and Forests to Fans"
"The Pleasures of Adapting: Reading, Viewing, Logging On"

I'd like to point out that ALL of these essays are written by women, with the minor exception of the Eco-Gothics one, which is written by a woman with a man (same last name, so I'm assuming husband... or maybe a gay brother?)