1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

416zq07etol-_sy344_bo1204203200_I can’t tell you how many times I picked up this book, read a few (or twenty or fifty) pages, put it back down and then didn’t pick it up again for another month (or two or four).  The good news is: the narrative was so compelling that I never had to go back and re-read to remember what was happening in the story.  The bad news is: the story is so dense and complex, it was challenging to read more than a few chapters at a time (at least until the last two or three hundred pages, when I couldn’t put it down).  The over 1,100 pages in the novel and my distracted approach to reading it meant it took me somewhere between one to three years to get to the end.  This, however, should not be an indication of the level of amazingness that is Murakami’s latest epic work.  Not by a long stretch.

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3Quarks Finalists Are In

For those of you following the 3Quarks Arts & Literature prize, the finalists are in! Congratulations to the authors of the blog posts that made the grade. You can check them out here:


  1. 3 Quarks Daily: Joothan: A Dalit’s Life
  2. Accidental Blogger: The Leopard _ Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa
  3. Chapati Mystery: The Stay-at-Home Man
  4. Jadaliyya: The Poetry of Revolt
  5. Millicent and Carla Fran: Why Don’t Women Submit?
  6. Sepia Mutiny: Letter to a Young Islamophobe
  7. The Millions: Her Story Next to His: Beloved and The Odyssey
  8. The Millions: Reading and Race: On Slavery in Fiction
  9. Writing Without Paper: Consider the Pomegranate

Like it or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews, Part II

Last month I wrote about the importance of bad reviews – mentioning the fact that without bad reviews, good reviews become meaningless. I also noted the reviewer’s obligation to readers and what writers might be able to learn from the bad review. But today, The Millions mentions a study that further encourages me in my belief that a bad review can be a good thing:

Is all publicity good publicity? Are all reviews—even bad ones—good for books? The answer,according to a new study [pdf] by the journal Marketing Science, depends on whether the writer is well known or unknown. The study examined the impact of a New York Times review on the sales of more than 200 hardcover titles. For books by established writers, a negative review led to a 15% decrease in sales. For unknown authors, a negative review increased sales by a healthy 45%.

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The Prospect of Magic by M.O. Walsh

M.O. Walsh’s collection of linked stories, The Prospect of Magic, takes place in Fluker, Louisiana and revolves around the members of the Ploofop Carnival. When the ringmaster dies, the orphaned carnies have nowhere to go, and the citizens of Fluker warmly welcome them to their town. What results is a year of giraffes and elephants wandering the streets, destroying the trees and local soccer field, until Stanley Winston – a man conflicted in his enormous success – builds a zoo for the animals that leads to the building of a ZooCarnival for the carnies.

Yes, you read that right: a ZooCarnival.

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The Important Thing Is…Card Game by Marjorie Tesser

Marjorie Tesser’s The Important Thing Is…Card Game requires a bit of open-mindedness. It’s published by Firewheel Editions and marketed as a chapbook and game. The only problem is, it’s not really either. Not really. The “poetry” comes in the form of seemingly random words placed on bingo-esque cards that are placed in such categories as: Location Cards, Dramatis Personae, Pairs and Bowery Poetry Club Edition (after Brenda Coultas’ “Bowery Box Wishes”). And this is where I have to consciously open myself to what poetry “can be” instead of what I think it “is.”

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The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers has a bit of an identity issue. On the one hand, it claims to be advice to writers which, in places, it actually is. On the other, it reads like an insider’s exposé of what editors and agents really think of we writer types. I couldn’t help but wonder if Lerner’s audience wasn’t actually intended to be other editors who would get the inside jokes and find the stereotypical caricatures of authors funny.

Lerner recently posted on her blog that: “My writing book is about publishing from an editor’s perspective, but the part that people seem more interested in is the inner life of writers. The wicked child and all that jazz.”  Well. I can see why.

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Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews

Emily St. John Mandel has an interesting take on bad reviews in yesterday’s The Millions.

“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”

Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.

But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.

Her post deals primarily with whether one should respond to a bad review. And though she is careful to point out that reviewers have the right to not like your book, I can’t help but return to the question that weighs on the minds of writers who also review: If we didn’t like the book, should we say so or just sit down and shut up?

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Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims & Mark Kramer

edited by Norman Sims & Mark KramerI picked up Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction because I’ve been experimenting with the genre.  Or so I thought.  The subtitle of this collection, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, both trained journalists, is indicative of the confusion inherent in the genre.  Nonfiction, as it turns out, appears in many different forms and styles.  This collection pays particular attention to what the editors call “Literary Journalism.” The essays in this collection are heavily researched and have the objectivity of journalism with the attention to language of fiction.  Almost.  There are places in which the research gets in the way of the crafting of language. Places, for example, where the author feels it necessary to list all eleven businesses along a particular stretch of a riverbank where the listing of two or three would have sufficed (and been less tedious).  And then there’s tone. Continue reading

The Passage by Justin Cronin

To say that Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a disappointment would be putting it rather lightly.  And that is partly due to the hype and partly to the book itself.  There’s been a lot said about this behemoth of a novel – some good, some glowing, some bordering on damning. And many reviewers have pointed out the nearly four million dollar advance Cronin received for the trilogy (The Passage is the first of that collection).  I can only guess Cronin’s child-inspired story (he and his eight-year-old daughter came up with the plot) had Ballantine Books seeing Harry Potter dollars in the future.  And their investment will most likely pay off (Ridley Scott already has the film options).  However, The Passage is no Harry Potter.

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Cooking with Cather

I love cookbooks.

Four years ago, I was researching and writing my dissertation on Willa Cather.  At least, that’s what I was supposed to be doing.  After three intense years of coursework, nine months of study and preparation for the oral and written exams, and a whirlwind tour of archives to read Cather’s letters, by the time I was ready to start writing, all I wanted to do was bake.

And bake I did.  For three months I made bread.  Sourdough bread. Rye bread. Wheat bread. White bread. Cheese bread. You name it.  If I could find a recipe for it, I was making it.  After several months of this, my freezer was stuffed with frozen loaves of homemade bread.  There was simply no other place to put more bread.  And so the canning began.  I canned jellies and pickles, tomato sauce and roasted red peppers.  My kitchen was a laboratory.  The house smelled divine.

That summer, I had a paper to present at the International Cather Seminar in France.  There, I came face to face with my dissertation director who had no qualms in asking me, point blank, where my dissertation was.  I stammered.  I hemmed and hawed.  And finally, I admitted that I had discovered the perfect sourdough starter.

Looking back on it, it makes perfect sense that I would turn to cooking at that point in my study.  I had just finished reading numerous Cather biographies in addition to her letters to friends and family.  Food was everywhere.  Willa Cather was, shall we say, a bit of a gastronome.  She had a french cook specially prepare her meals.  She wrote, most often disparagingly, of the food she ate.  Every biographer who has written about Cather has been forced to, at the very least, mention her obsession with food.  Were she alive today, I have no doubt that Willa Cather would have one of the most discriminating and well-followed food blogs ever to be written.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Willa Cather Foundation has recently published a cookbook: At Willa Cather’s Tables.

This little gem has recipes from no less than sixteen of Cather’s literary works in addition to Cather family recipes and a host of recipes from places Cather loved.  It is also filled with excerpts from Cather’s novels and short stories and memories from friends and family members.  If you’re like me, and you love both literature and cooking, it’s the perfect kind of cookbook.  You can get it here: www.willacather.org

My dissertation director was not impressed with my experiments in gastronomy.  Back then, his exact words to me were, “Gabriel.  Just write the damned thing.”  And that is exactly what I did.  And yes, even my dissertation dealt, in part, with Cather’s obsession with food.  But that was years ago.  And though I’m still actively involved in all things Cather, I don’t currently have a deadline looming.  The only real pressing matter is deciding what I should attempt first:  Antonia’s Favorite Banana Cream Pie or Carrie Miner Sherwood’s Christmas Plum Pudding.