Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Demetri Martin’s Brevity and Wit

Few comics are as funny off the page as when they are on stage. Demetri Martin’s comedy reads wonderfully in his new collection of shorts, bits, and drawings entitled THIS IS A BOOK. Martin’s droll sense of humor blends irony, absurdity and potty humor with little excess. When others need paragraphs, Martin uses a sentence–he is a master of shortform.

The book is divided into four parts each separated by sets of one panel drawings. The sections are organized without thematic reasons; instead Martin separates his narratives and one-liners equally throughout the book.

Particular standouts are ‘Socrates’s Publicist’ (as seen in this month’s Playboy), and ‘Optimest, Pessimist, Contortionist,’; each representative of Martin’s ability to turn simple phrases and premises on their ear. ‘Sheila’ demonstrated Martin’s ability to create longer narratives, something I hope he continues and explores in his next book.

I considered several methods of describing THIS IS A BOOK, but none felt natural and germane to Martin’s style. Instead I’ve drawn a few pictures to summarize my opinion on his first book. As you will see below I had a great time reading THIS IS A BOOK. If you’ve chuckled at one of Demetri’s standup acts or at one of his appearances on the Daily Show this book is for you. Whimsical, accessible, and sure to make you laugh. Unless you hate fun. I would stay away if you hate fun.

A Pie Chart Showing the Content of the Book

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The history of a city in 880 pages

It only sat on my shelf for about two years, but I FINALLY FINISHED IT, GUYS. I finally read Edward Rutherfurd’s 880 page epic, New York: The Novel.

It starts in 1664 with a Dutch merchant named Dirk van Dyck who has settled in New Amsterdam with his family. He meets an Englishman from Boston named Tom Merchant, and the two join forces to create a shipping company that brings power and wealth to these two men in the expanding New World. The next 350 years of history involve the interwoven stories of these two families, as New Amsterdam transforms into the modern, powerful city it is today: New York City.

A chunkster can be so satisfying because you can get completely sucked in to the characters, which is particularly easy when you know you’re going to follow these people and their lives and their families for decades and centuries to come. New York put the characters we’ve followed, the ones we now know, into historical settings we also know, which had the affect of putting us, the reader, there…in the middle of it all…and viewing history from a first-hand perspective. In this regard, New York was a five-star novel, but that doesn’t mean it is without its faults.

The story opens with the van Dycks, the Masters, and their slaves, and we follow their lives and families from the mid-17th century through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and then…for some lineages, it just stops. The novel becomes the story of the WASPy Master family. And for the next 200 years, we follow the Masters through the Gilded Age, the Depression, the Wall Street boom…and all we read about is MONEY. While Rutherfurd took care to color every time period with relevant characters (like German and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, Italian immigrants at the turn of the century, 20th-century Jewish communities in Brooklyn) none of these other characters ever felt as fully integrated into the story. Yes, they played a role, and their descendants sometimes did as well, but Rutherfurd just kept the novel so incredibly focused on the upper-class Masters, that I was left wondering what happened to the slaves and the natives, and what these immigrants really went through, because I didn’t get their full history.

What I’m trying to say in all of that is…I don’t want to hear obnoxious rich people whining about not being rich enough, so by the end, I didn’t care a flip about the Masters.

All of this aside, I thought it was a fabulous novel that inevitably made me want to hear more on all these people I met throughout its 880 pages. My favorite part was actually the beginning, when Manhattan was forests and farmland because this is just such a foreign concept to me, currently living in the concrete jungle day in and day out. I love when Rutherfurd intertwined historical figures and events with his fictional characters, because I can read about Lincoln’s pre-Presidency speech at Cooper Union in 1860 and say, “I KNOW WHERE THAT IS.”

I think Rutherfurd’s point to this novel is that this city is fluid, ever shifting and ever changing, but with an energy that fuels its people and makes things happen and defines its very existence. New Yorkers have New York in their blood, and just as the people define their city, a city defines its people as well. Call it an ego or call it pride, but I guarantee there is no place that sentiment is felt stronger than in New York.

For those of you interested in New York City history, browse the Welikia Project to uncover the city’s original ecology.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

For the love of big books

I’m currently in the middle of the 850 page epic New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. So while this post is partly serving as filler until I can write about something I’ve read, it’s also going to be a brief reflection on that beloved genre of novel: the chunkster.

I find that there are few reads more satisfying than when you finish a big 500+ page book that was just incredible and completely sucked you in.

Yet, the chunkster read is a risky one. You may get 250 pages in and realize you don’t like the characters or the plot. Or you get bored. Or you don’t have the time to commit to it. Or, worst of all, you finish and there’s an unsatisfying ending that just makes you say, “THAT’S what I spent so much time to get to???” But finish a worthy chunkster and, oohlala, you just want to dive right into the next—if you can bear to move on beyond these characters you now know so well, that is.

Some BIG BOOKS I’ve enjoyed:

  • Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann — This main character had some ISSUES, but I somehow got sucked in anyway.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett — Yes, I know…me and everybody else.
  • When Everything Changed by Gail Collins —Nonfiction and oh-so interesting!
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell — I read this in high school and felt oh-so-freakin-smart carrying this massive book with me everywhere I went.

Some BIG BOOKS that have made me go UGH:

  • The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy — O.M.G. Let’s not get into it about this one again, m’kay?
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — I didn’t really go UGH, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it either. It was just meh. 
  • The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami — Umm….WHAT? This inspired me to never read anymore Murakami. Sorry, Murakami fans.

Some BIG BOOKS I’m still waiting to read:

  • Roses by Leila Meacham — Generations of a family in Texas? Sounds like Dynasty! Yes, please!
  • Coming Home by Rosamund Pilcher — I have this in mass paperback format and haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, partly because I’m almost too embarrassed to carry it in public. It looks like an awful romance novel, and I have to look cool on my L train commute.
  • Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust — Ha, this has been on my list since 10th grade and an episode of Gilmore Girls, so let’s just pretend like it won’t be another 9 years before I even consider reading it.
Seeing as how this is a genre that ALWAYS perks my ears, what are some of your favorite BIG BOOK reads??

Thursday, April 7, 2011

When Tito Loved Clara…and more from Jon Michaud

So you may or may not remember that I just started Grad school to get my M.L.S. degree and become Super Librarian Extraordinaire. Well, one other member of the awesome M.L.S. club is Jon Michaud, author of the new release When Tito Loved Clara. Jon is Head of Library at The New Yorker by day, debut novelist by night.

This is a surprisingly complex story. It focuses on Tito and Clara, two Dominican Inwood residents who had a relationship in high school but have now gone completely separate ways in life. Clara lives in New Jersey with the husband she met in library school and their son; Tito still lives in Inwood with his parents at the same moving company he worked at in high school. When they are suddenly reacquainted, they’re each faced with questions of their pasts and presents, sparking the sudden “unraveling of both of their lives.”

Michaud deals with tons of ideas and themes for both of the main characters: first love, family relationships, fertility struggles, self-identity and history. The story hops back and forth between Tito and Clara, and the timeline has that nice flow where it occasionally back tracks from one character section to the next as a way of developing the story. It flows beautifully. I don’t know much about the immigrant experience, but I thought Michaud crafted very detailed, complex characters, each in some way in conflict with their identity. Clara worked her whole life to escape her Dominican identity, while Tito always seemed stuck with his life in Inwood. Their lives had such drama, but realistic drama, that I was drawn into their lifestyles and interested in how each character would deal with the situations they faced—they certainly were dramatic!


I was happy to discover that Jon Michaud was appearing at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint at a book event/fundraiser, so I had the opportunity to hear him talk about his life, his job, and his novel, and he was nice enough to later answer a few questions I had over email. It’s a GREAT interview. Thanks, Jon!

How long did it take you to write When Tito Loved Clara?

Seven years—five to write it, a year find a publisher (with rewrites during the submission process), and a year of revisions under the guidance of my editor, Jane Rosenman. I write slowly. I have a full-time job and two young children and I am thrilled if I can get more than an hour a day at the computer. While working on the latter parts of Tito, not long after the birth of my second son, I bought a laptop and wrote during my commute—half an hour each way between suburban New Jersey and Penn Station. It was the only “free” time in my day. It’s not the ideal way to write a book, but I am here to tell you that it can be done.

Maybe more importantly, how long had you been PLOTTING to write When Tito Loved Clara?

I began writing about the milieu in which Tito takes place in the late nineteen-nineties, when I met my wife Zoraida, who is Dominican, and who lived in Inwood, the northernmost part of Manhattan. I was fascinated by the neighborhood, and by the stories my wife and her family told me and I conceived a story collection modeled on James Joyce’s Dubliners and Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City—a sequence of connected stories that would evoke Inwood. That story collection drew the interest of an agent, but he was unable to find me a publisher. Many of the rejection letters boiled down to the same verdict: “The writing is lovely, and the characters are interesting, but we want a novel.”

With that in mind, I took passages from the story collection and developed them into the early stages of the novel. Among the aborted stories I had leftover from the collection was one that began with a Dominican man named Tito sitting in a car outside a woman’s house in the suburbs. I hadn’t been able to figure out why he was there, but once I started on the novel, I understood that he needed a larger vessel than the short story to carry his narrative. He became the engine for the novel and once I had him, I didn’t look back.

When Tito Loved Clara has so many little pieces to it that could each be a novel in their own right—Clara’s childhood and adolescence, Tito and Clara’s high school relationship, Clara’s relationship with her sister and mother, Clara and Thomas’ fertility struggles, Tito’s struggle to grow up and come into his own. What led you to address so many issues and themes in one novel?

Lorrie Moore talks about how, early on in the composition of a novel, there is a period where all kinds of things from the writer’s life can enter the book. Tito is a prime example of this. When I started writing the book, my wife and I had just come out of a difficult year—we’d lost a baby at 22 weeks, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and another member of my family had recently died. All of these things got sucked into the book and writing it became my way of dealing with those difficult things. Although I am an admirer of slim, perfectly executed novels, such as The Great Gatsby or The Remains of the Day, I felt, at that time, that the loose-baggy-monster model of the form was more suitable to my needs. Great Expectations, The Age of Innocence, and Richard Ford’s Bascombe Trilogy were stronger models for what I was trying to do. Life felt messy and complicated to me and that manifested itself in the book.

Did you ever feel like the breadth of the novel was snowballing out of control?

The final draft of the book—before submission and before editing—was almost a hundred pages longer than the published version of the book. While I never felt that the material was snowballing on me, I did have a nagging sense as I wrote the book that some of it was extraneous. My agent and my editor both helped me see what needed trimming and which remaining parts needed enhancing.

Setting and history play an integral role in the characters and their decisions/actions. What was the decision to write about Inwood and Dominican immigrants? Were you trying to tell a story through them or were you trying to tell THEIR story?

What fascinated me about Inwood was its ethnic mix, combined with its geography and history. It was New York in microcosm (many city neighborhoods are), but it also had the advantage of being relatively undiscovered. Nobody, to my knowledge, had set a whole novel there, which I found incredible.

Some examples of what drew my curiosity: That slender bit of land, bounded on three sides by water is home to a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Cloisters), one of the oldest houses in New York (the Dyckman House), a hospital, and Columbia University’s playing fields. Along Broadway, you can still see the stone gateway that once led to the Seaman estate. Inwood Hill Park, which has the city’s only remaining old-growth forest, is reputedly where Peter Minuit made his deal for Manhattan island. You’ve got Irish bars, synagogues, and many, many Domincan-owned businesses, plus a long-established and growing enclave of middle-class professionals drawn by (relatively) cheap rents and easy access to Midtown and the theatre district.

But, because I was writing a novel, the characters and the story took over and part of the book wound up set in New Jersey. Still, the heart of novel, as the cover shows, takes place in Inwood.

Your life seems surrounded by the literary. What’s been the evolution or timeline of jobs that have led to where you are today?

It wasn’t always so. My first job, during high school, was as a bicycle courier in Washington, D.C. Later, I spent years working as a clerk in bookstores. For a time, I made sandwiches at a bagel place in Ithaca, New York. My aim was always to defer a career in expectation of becoming a published writer. Eventually, a friend gave me a lead on an entry-level job in the Research Center at Time Inc. After a while, the director of the Center offered to pay for me to go to library school. It’s a measure of how dumb I was that I did not, at first, leap at the offer. But eventually, with the help of my wife and other friends, I came to my senses. At that time, I’d published only a handful of stories and essays in small literary magazines and it was clear that my writing wasn’t going to be providing me with an income any time soon.

In retrospect, going to library school is one of the best decisions I ever made. Not long after I received my M.L.S., the Time Inc. Research Center was eliminated as part of the merger between AOL and Time Warner. But because I had the degree, I quickly found another job at the EPA library in Washington, D.C. Two years later, while scanning job listings for my wife (who is also a librarian), I came across the posting for the job at The New Yorker and thought, Hey, I’ve got most of the qualifications they’re looking for…

“Head Librarian” for The New Yorker is such an ambiguous job title! What kinds of tasks does it involve and what’s the most interesting or exciting aspect of it for you?

My official title is “Head of Library,” which is not really any more illuminating. There are, in fact, three libraries at the magazine: a reference library used and maintained by the fact-checking department; the photo library, which serves our photo editors and researchers; and the capital “L” Library, where my colleague Erin Overbey and I work, but which is, in fact, an archive, or what used to be known in the newspaper world as “the morgue.” We are the repository and index for the magazine’s editorial history—every issue back to 1925 in print and digital form, cross-referenced in card catalogs, scrapbooks, and myriad databases.

Erin and I index and abstract the articles in the magazine each week as they are prepared for publication. We work closely with the production and web departments. The keywords and abstracts we create become part of the metadata for the web site and are also used in the iPad and other editions of The New Yorker. We also serve as curators for the archive. We write a blog linking current events to articles from the recent and not-so-recent past. Additionally, we answer queries from writers and editors, and also help with special projects, such as gathering stories the anthologies the magazine publishes. It is all rewarding and interesting but perhaps the most exciting part of the job is discovering something wonderful in the archive, which is full of wonderful and sometimes forgotten treasures.

Friday, April 1, 2011

World Party: A gypsy father, a missing mother, and Finnaula Whippet

Ireland was March’s country of choice in the World Reading Challenge, and I chose to pick a book up off my shelf that I’ve had since BEA last year: The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins. [I mean, I sure as hell wasn’t going to read any James Joyce.]

The Outside Boy is about a young 12-year-old Pavee (gypsy) boy in 1959 who travels from town to town with his father and extended family, carting all their possessions on wagons. William Christopher Hurley, “Christy” for short, has never met his mother, as she died in childbirth, and it’s a burden he’s carried his whole life. However, when his grandfather dies and the family decides to temporarily set up camp in a small town, the exposure to a different way of life inspires Christy to explore his past and find out about his mother.

I’m glad that I picked this one. It was exciting to read a story that focuses on a such tiny blip in the history and population of Ireland (not that I know that much Irish history in the first place). It’s definitely a coming of age story for Christy; Cummins tells the story from his first-person perspective to give the reader and understanding of his thoughts and thought processing. The conflicts within Christy’s own perception of himself are universal. He wants the stability of a house and home, but he feels stifled and aches for the outdoors when he’s inside one; Christy understands his father’s love for him, yet he begrudges him for his mother’s absence. Christy realizes he is “an outside boy,” not sure where he belongs nor how he fits in. His quest for answers and self-searching tugs at the heart strings but with an energetic spunk to keep the reader deeply involved in the story.

Beyond Christy’s individual story, Cummins addressed the Pavee/traveller culture as a whole, and how they fit into society and are perceived by the stationary population. Pavees possess an intricate culture and language of their own, yet they’re often perceived as unintelligent vagrants and addressed with derogatory terms. I was surprised to read that this group is still prominent in Ireland; over 22,000 travellers were reported in the 2006 Irish census, as well as significant populations in Great Britain and even communities of the United States.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s good for a bit of a culture and history lesson and a good character story to boot.

Next up, Jamaica….