"Year-end lists are always subjective and incomplete, but they are especially tricky for books. A dedicated film critic can watch every wide release film and a theater critic can go to most every play, but the book critic is faced with an insurmountable mountain of books each year. The sheer number of books is inspiring as a reader, but it can make 'best of' lists laughably subjective when the critic has only read a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of novels published each year. With that in mind, I decided to crowd source Electric Literature’s year-end lists. First up: novels."
Steven Millhauser is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author known for his erudite, witty and surreal writing style that blends the magical and the real. Enjoy the full text of Eisenheim The Illusionist (pdf, 20 pages), the story that inspired the 2006 film The Illusionist. [more inside]
An interview with the man who banned in Boston, circa 1930. The New Republic is republishing a haul of classics from its archives in celebration of its 100th anniversary. In honor of banned books week, today's selection is a brief interview/profile of one of the U.S. Customs officials in charge of clearing books for circulation circa 1930. [more inside]
"Longings and Desires", a Slate.com book review by Amanda Katz:
[Sarah] Waters, who was born in Wales in 1966, has carved out an unusual spot in fiction. Her six novels, beginning with Tipping the Velvet in 1998, could be called historical fiction, but that doesn’t begin to capture their appeal. It is closer to say that she is creating pitch-perfect popular fiction of an earlier time, but swapping out its original moral engine for a sensibility that is distinctly queer and contemporary, as if retrofitting a classic car.[more inside]
Her books offer something like an alternate reality—a literary one, if not a historical one. There may have been lesbian male impersonators working the London music halls in the 1890s, as in Tipping the Velvet, but there were certainly not mainstream novels devoted to their inner lives and sexual exploits. Waters gives such characters their say in books that imitate earlier crowd-pleasers in their structure, slang, and atmosphere, but that are powered by queer longing, defiant identity politics, and lusty, occasionally downright kinky sex. (An exception is her last novel, The Little Stranger.) The most masterful of these books so far is Fingersmith, a Wilkie Collins-esque tale full of genuinely shocking twists (thieves, double-crossing, asylums, mistaken identity, just go read it). The saddest is The Night Watch, a tale told in reverse of a group of entwined characters during and after World War II. But among many readers she is still most beloved for Tipping the Velvet, a deliriously paced coming-of-age story that is impossible to read in public without blushing.
If there is one thing we've learned from movies like Terminator and the Matrix, it's that an artificial robotic intelligence will one day force mankind into a seemingly hopeless battle for its survival. Now a new book by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom provides detailed arguments in support of your fears of Skynet, and ideas about we might protect ourselves from an A.I. Apocalypse: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. An excerpt at Slate discusses how intelligence could be related to goals: You Should Be Terrified of Superintelligent Machines. Ron Bailey reviews Bostrom at Reason Magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education also has a new article that discusses more than Bostrom's book: Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat? [more inside]
Reviews of classic books, culled from the internet's think tank.
V.V. Ganeshananthan at The Margins on writing outside of what you know and the literary establishment's willingness to suspend disbelief and praise authenticity of narrative. As Gracie Jin put it, "In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man."
"These discussions are thoughtful and measured, but the premise that frames them all is shaky; Lessig doesn't offer much proof that a Soviet-style loss of privacy and freedom is on its way. … Unlike actual law, Internet software has no capacity to punish. It doesn't affect people who aren't online (and only a tiny minority of the world population is). And if you don't like the Internet's system, you can always flip off the modem." — David Pogue is the creator of the ''Missing Manual'' series, which will include guides to Mac OS 9, Outlook Express and Windows 2000.
"A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels. But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage." (via) [more inside]
The only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex. This book review was written by Jeremy Denk, who has a blog where you can find more good writing about music.
The myth of English as a global language One would have to say that English, far from being a pure maiden, looks like a woman who has appeared out of some distant fen, had more partners than Moll Flanders, learned a lot in the process, and is now running a house of negotiable affection near an international airport
"Reading every word of this disjointed, strange monster of a manuscript would make even an Adderall addict bleary." Anita Dalton of I Read Odd Books reviews 2083: A European Declaration of Independence by Anders Behring Breivik.
What journalists who blog think “blogging” is. Lizzie Skurnick (pseudonymous author of the literary blog the Old Hag) almost got called up to the Show – the New York Times actually asked her to write. But under their terms. And that’s the problem:
[T]he media who, after constantly treating me as an amusing quantity who, despite the zillions of print articles I have written, is still a blogger, while they, who are now blogging, because they crashed their whole goddamn field, are somehow not bloggers except for how maybe they are running blogs, want to tell me what to do.... You link wrong. You’re not funny.... You think posts are something you “pitch.” [...] You think other bloggers should respond to other bloggers, preferably in chin-stroking ways like “I appreciate your thoughts, Gwendolyn, yet I….” You want headlines maximized for SEO.... Worse, you seem to take blogging as some amusing shift you’ve been asked to do that is entirely within your powers. You are a fancy important journalist! You are an actual writer. OK, maybe you are. But you are sure as hell not a blogger any more than that dude with the novel in the drawer is a novelist.(Via)
Like books? Like meaty posts with lots of links? If you're a reader who loves, as Sonya Chung puts it, "gorging [yourself] on all this content" you're going to love the Omnivore, a blog at Bookforum. Some posts are all over the place; their links seemingly unrelated. Others stick closely to a topic. All are fascinating. [more inside]
"This is a novel born out of the intersection of two eras. The first is a story of the Cultural Revolution, a time of fanaticism, repressed instincts, and tragic fates, similar to the European Middle Ages. The second is a story of today, a time of subverted ethics, fickle sensuality, and every kind of phenomena, even more like the Europe of today. A westerner would have to live four hundred years to experience the vast differences of the two eras, but a Chinese would only need forty years for the experience." Yu Hua's Brothers, a sprawling, foul-mouthed, comic-historical epic, and the best-selling novel in China's history, is available in English. [more inside]
The Millions, online since 2003, is a book blog of exceptional breadth and depth, and "an independent literature and culture publication that pays its writers." Until recently, that breadth and depth was hard to fathom, as the site had outgrown its infrastructure. Now, however, its excellent features are easy to find, as are series like The Future of the Book, Ask a Book Question, and The Millions Interview. Superb reviews can be found as they happen or in the Book Review Index, and, a vestige of when The Millions was a one man operation, you can find out what C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, is reading on the Book Lists page. [more inside]
Bob Woodward has a new book released today titled The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. The Politico has a lengthy review by Mike Allen. Bloomberg also has an early, less flattering, review. [more inside]
"The lamp's glow was very weak compared to the blue glow emancipating from the basement." And while the award for best book review ever certainly goes to young Chaz Moore, the contest for worst book ever written presents some competition. And so as not to offend anyone, here's the obligatory honorable mention.
Historian Robert Irwin reviews two books critical of Edward Said's Orientalism. Irwin's own critique received positive and mixed reviews. In this brief interview, Said explains what he was trying to do in Orientalism.
The murky demimonde of Amazon's Top Reviewers. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but I had imagined Amazon's customer reviews as a refuge from the machinations of the publishing industry: "an intelligent and articulate conversation ... conducted by a group of disinterested, disembodied spirits..."
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography has some excellent book and film reviews, written by author and artist Jason Pettus. He mostly reviews contemporary fiction but has a few classics like The House of the Seven Gables, which is part of a two-year project to read 100 "classics" to see if they are really classic or not.
Harriet Klausner, 55, is Amazon's #1 book reviewer, with almost 15,000 book reviews in the past 8 years or slightly over 5 per day. Her coveted position in the highly competitive world of Amazon review rankings has earned her accolades from Time Magazine, a write-up in Wired Magazine, and more than a little snarky skepticism from other reviewers. If you like her taste in books, she keeps an archive of reviews.
Newt Gingrich's Amazon book reviews. "Speaker Gingrich is an avid reader. He does not review all of the books he reads. You will not find any bad reviews here, just the books he thinks you might enjoy."
The Spaghetti Book Club offers book reviews by kids for kids, searchable in a variety of ways. (And most of the reviews are also illustrated by the kid-authors!). One of my favorites begins: "Do you like bad ideas or thinking about them? Well, if you like bad ideas then you should read The Book of Bad Ideas. The Book of Bad Ideas is a book that has bad ideas you really shouldn't try at home. If you try them you'll be soooorrrrryyyyy! If you want to learn more about it, I'll suggest a website but I don't know any. Maybe you should read the book."
"I was stunned by its lyrical beauty and easy cadence. The tempo, the choice of words, and the layout on each page captured my imagination so much that it took me about seven minutes to recover my bearings." Amazon users review My Pet Goat. (via Sadly, No!)
A concerned reader in St. Louis just might be Dave Eggers. A weekend glitch on Amazon Canada allowed people to see the true secret identities behind reviews on the site. [NYT Link]