Books

The Invention of Angela Carter, by Edmund Gordon

AngelaCarterI'll admit I'd never heard of Angela Carter before the review of this book appeared in NYRB, and Carter's style of novels really doesn't appeal to me, but this is the best biography of a writer I've read in a long time. Edmund Gordon manages to make Carter come alive, although she has been dead for 25 years. Making a biography subject come alive does not sound like a remarkable accomplishment, but it really is, and in this case it also does justice to Carter's appetite for life. We get a good idea of her friendships, loves, writing habits, jobs, and of course books. The writing is a pleasure to read. I got interested in the book when the NYRB review mentioned how Carter at first wrote to escape her stifling home environment, but this is only a small part of her life, and there is a lot more to her life than that early chapter of her life, which she closed when she married her first husband. (That marriage did not last. When she finally settled down, her second marriage - to a man 18 years her junior - was much happier.) She was a bit an adventurer - she travelled alone to Japan and Russia - and I loved the parts where she went to the U.S. to teach at Brown University, the Iowa Writers' Workshop and UT Austin (she did not think very highly of those students, but worked very hard to help them improve.) It is so fascinating to read about her perception of the U.S. in the 1980s. My only minor comment is that I wish the author had accompanied his figures in British pounds (when he says how much Carter was paid as an advance on this or that book) with their equivalent in US dollars. But this is really nitpicking. This is a exceptional book which deserves to be widely disseminated and shortlisted for many literary awards. 

You can read an essay by Gordon about the book here, and a review in the New Yorker here.


Willa Cather

WillaCatherI found this 2005 PBS documentary on Willa Cather, subtitled The Road is All, after a line by Walt Whitman, profoundly plodding and stodgy - especially regarding Cather's personal life - but it draws insightful parallels between her life and her books, and as such will be a useful resource for anyone interested in her novels.

The introduction to Cather's Song of the Lark by Doris Grumbach provides a far more vivid portrayal of Cather as a person. Her selected letters also offer insights into a sharp personality with a keen eye for observation, although that book suffers from the lack of letters from her close friends, Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis, which were destroyed at Cather's request.

The movie dances around the issue of Cather's love life - she travelled extensively with McClung before the latter got married and then lived with Lewis for 39 years, but scholars go on the record in the movie that there is nothing in her books that suggests she ever knew real physical passion, as if novelists at the beginning of the twentieth century were ever going to write that sort of books. It is almost as if the filmmakers, back in 2006, felt that they had to play down that aspect of Cather for their movie to be watched. The other thing that bothered me about the movie was the use of actors to reenact scenes of life on the Nebraskan frontier a century ago. I would have preferred being shown real artifacts of the time.

Again, the documentary doesn't provide much help to understand Cather as a person, but it offers a stellar introduction to her novels and how she found inspiration in her real life, so it remains a valuable watch in spite of its shortcomings, and PBS also designed a good companion website about Cather. 

While life on the frontier (Nebraska, in her case) was the transformative experience of Cather's life, she was born in Virginia in 1873 and only moved to Nebraska ten years later. She later used that turning point as the setting of her novel My Antonia. As a teen in the late 1880s, Cather often dressed like a man, which people have interpreted to mean that she wanted the same success as men. Later, she seemed to sense that she could not have the career she wanted if she married, although her selected letters suggest she had a moderate interest in men. She attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the early 1890s, where she planned to major in science until one of her teachers published an essay she had written in the school newspaper. On the staff of that newspaper, Cather earned the reputation as a fearsome critic of theater, in spite of her lack of experience. She was very ambitious and eager to get out of Nebraska, and in 1896 took a job in Pittsburgh - a wealthy city in those days - editing a women's magazine.

Pittsburgh is where she met Isabelle McClung. They traveled to Europe in 1902. One year later, a collection of Cather's poems was published, and then in 1905 a collection of short stories by McClure, who offered her a job at his magazine - a leading light for top fiction and groundbreaking journalism. Cather spent 6 years there. The job served as her apprenticeship to the world of publishing. She did feel trapped by the editing job and wanted to write a novel. 

She published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912 at age 38. It was not a success. Characters were abstract and there was none of the later signature themes of Cather's. (It took place in the high society). A friend, Sarah Orne Jewett, advised her to find her quiet center and write from there. In 1912 Cather traveled back to Nebraska and then Arizona and New Mexico, on a leave of absence. (The movie never mentions Cather was a teacher in Pittsburgh for some time, having wanted to return to the city where McClung lived.) 

Back in New York City, Cather jumped into the unknown, working for herself only, and wrote novels that drew from her direct experience. While Cather continued her friendship with McClung (Song of the Lark is dedicated to her), she moved in with Edith Lewis in 1912 in Greenwich Village. This was the most productive period of her life. She published O Pioneers in 1913 (the title is drawn from a poem by Walt Whitman) and followed it with Song of the Lark (1915), inspired by her friend the Wagnerian opera singer Olive Fremstad. McClung married a concert violinist in 1916. 

Cather then wrote My Antonia, which has the particularity of being told through a male character's eyes. The father of the main character commits suicide, in an incident that echoes the real-life suicide of the father of someone Cather knew. As another example of Cather drawing from her life for her fiction, Cather's cousin was killed in World War I and her novel One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, tells the life of a young Nebraskan farmer who enlists to fight in the Great War. In spite of the literary accolades, Cather considered the book a failure. She had no first-hand knowledge of the 1918 French battlefield and today's critics agree it showed.

Her next book, The Professor's House, describes what happens when what gave your life meaning is over long before your actual life is. This is followed by Death Comes for the Archbishop. By the 1930s Cather had become a literary phenomenon. She appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and was named one of the 12 greatest women in America by Good Housekeeping Magazine but increasingly valued her privacy. Her parents, favorite brother, McClung died (the latter two in 1938). Cather's health steadily deterioriated and she died in April 1947 in New York City. 

For more information on Cather, the website of the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska Lincoln offers a longer biographical sketch.

CatherSongLark CatherLetters


David Halberstam, 10 years ago

ColdestWinterToday marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of David Halberstam. It is hard to believe it has been ten years already. I remember my shock at hearing that, after surviving on-the-ground reporting of the Vietnam War, he had died in a traffic accident in Menlo Park, CA, on his way to interviewing someone for his next book. It seemed such a trivial way to die, for everyone but especially for him. He wasn't even driving the car. (Another author who died in a car crash is Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author of The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch and Highest Duty with Chelsey Sullenberger. It was five years in February. Such a loss.) I wonder what Halberstam would think of the times we live in today.

I haven't read anything by Halberstam in many years but a local history bookclub in Dallas read The Coldest Winter a few months ago. I've never had any interest in learning more about the Korean War but got the book to take part in the bookclub, and I quickly realized what a gem of a book Halberstam had written - the last one before his passing, as a matter of fact. If you read nothing else, his takedown of General MacArthur at the beginning of the book is a thing of beauty. (He doesn't mince words for his Chief of Staff Edward Almond either, but Almond is lost to history.) Halberstam's mastery of language and ability to write with a punch left me in awe. It is a fascinating study of character, ego, politics, ambition and - more than anything else - the unremitting courage of American servicemen in an almost forgotten war, rescued from oblivion by Halberstam and the sad circumstances that make this, forever, the last book he ever wrote.

You can read Halberstam's obituary in the New York Times here.


Book review: "Eleanor Roosevelt vol.3" by Blanche Wiesen Cook

ER-vol3 I remember being spellbound fifteen years ago when I read the first two volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook's bio of ER. I impatiently waiting for the last volume, checking every few years if it had a publication date. What a disappointment this is. While the first two volumes were full of insights into ER, I felt this one listed a lot of facts and didn't go in any depth in the human element. I suppose Volumes 1 and 2 benefited from Wiesen Cook's novel (at the time) argument that ER and Lorena Hickok were "very, very close friends", which was a bit scandalous when Wiesen Cook first made her case but probably contributed to selling books and is more accepted now. In Volume 3 Wiesen Cook doesn't have a big revelation to make, or perhaps she got tired of her subject. (Wiesen Cook is in her mid-70s now and a project of that scope does take its toll on its author.) In addition, the part about ER's life after FDR is blatantly rushed - something just about every reader agrees on, including the New York Times reviewer. The 3 volumes taken together will make this the definitive biography of ER for years to come, but one can only hope BWC revises Volume 3 and expands the end before it is printed in paperback. 


Book Review: "Eleanor and Hick"

ERandHickThe first half of the book was an excellent read. Quinn compellingly brought Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok to life while maintaining the objective tone required of historians. I found the second half, when Eleanor and Hick lead mostly separate lives, less interesting because Eleanor seemed to have drifted away from Hick by that point, perhaps because of her First Lady duties. Quinn should also be commended for showing ER's insensitive side at times, instead of glossing over it or simply not mentioning it. ER remains very popular to date and it takes courage to show her in her less savory aspects. (She was only human.)

I had known about Eleanor and Hick through ER's biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook (volumes 1 and 2), so I expected that, but ER's "strong friendships" (infatuations? affairs? the book seems to be on the fence) with the much younger Joe Lash and David Gurewitsch surprised me. I felt ER was a bit pathetic in her pursuit of both Lash and Gurewitsch, whether it was out of a need for pure, platonic companionship or something more physical. (You'll notice that she didn't need Hick that much after FDR died but instead sought other travel companions.)

I was also quite disappointed by the contrast between ER's readiness to help her friends and her more lukewarm concern toward her own children, who were plagued by many emotional issues throughout their lives (many, many marriages, a fondness for alcohol, etc). I suppose that given their parents' marriage, you can't blame them for their complicated love lives.

Overall I liked the book but I also felt ER came across as quite indifferent to her children (admittedly grown) and masterful in shaping public opinion, writing bland columns and coming across as a dowdy matron while she loved a woman (Quinn does point out we'll never know if the relationship was physical or not) and then sought the companionship of younger men. It's an interesting facet of ER, for sure.

Finally, the subtitle "The love affair that shaped a First Lady" was probably chosen by the publisher, given that the love affair recedes in the background in the second half of the book and there isn't much discussion of how that love affair shaped ER, except that it made her happy at the time when ER and Hick were close.

Digression: When I read the part about Joe Lash, I kept thinking I had read that name before, until I realized he wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Eleanor and Franklin" (1971) as well as "Eleanor: The Years Alone" (1972). I had never realized he had been much closer to his subject than is the norm with traditional biographers and I'll have to re-read the books to see if/how he tried to shape the ER legend after her death. Sometimes, even supposedly neutral biographers have less critical distance than you think.

Anyway, I found Eleanor and Hick to be an enjoyable read.


Best Books of 2016

This is an overdue post about my favorite books of 2016, for those of you looking for reading suggestions.

Fiction

EarlyWarning-SmileyEarly Warning by Jane Smiley (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #2) This is my favorite novel of the year. Smiley proved herself a masterful storyteller who shares important lessons about how people change as their lives progress and they are faced with a wide range of experiences - the protagonists are a family of farmers in Iowa but their children scatter over the country and witness or participate in some of the defining moments of the times - lives cut too short, lives that don't turn out as hoped, people who end up with someone else than than the person they loved, children gone too soon, illnesses, and all that without being downbeat but simply told from a realistic perspective by an author with extraordinary empathy for her characters and a keen eye for human nature. Some of the storylines really moved me and Smiley's prose is breathtaking in its choice of detail and precision. Back in October I wrote a blog post entitled Why isn't Jane Smiley more famous? and I still ask myself that same question.

 

 

GoldenAge-SmileyGolden Age (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #3) I have to admit this is the book I read first in the trilogy, having picked it up at the airport without realizing it was meant as the last part of a group, but the characters are so hard to keep track of, given all the different story lines, you can just dive into the book and catch up along the way. Now if you want to be smarter, you can start with Volume 2 and then read Volume 3. If you only have time for one volume, then for me Early Warning is the best of the three. I am not including Some Luck: Last Hundred Years A Family Saga #1 because I wasn't as impressed by it - Smiley spends too much time writing about what cute toddlers the first protagonists were without giving us a reason to read further, and if I had started with that volume I probably would never have read the other two.

 

 

 

UndergroundRailroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I wrote a blog post about a reading he gave in Dallas near SMU back in September here. In the meantime he won the National Book Award for his chronicle of "a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom" (from the Amazon product description).

 

 

 

 

 

KavalierClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and recounts the adventures of two teenage boys mostly in the 1940s in New York, is so exuberant in tone and theme (one of the teenage boys is an escape artist and budding magician, the other one draws comic books, they become partners in a new comic book creation and go from adventure to adventure) that it gave me energy just from reading it. Chabon's command of language is impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

GWTWGone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I might have finished reading this book in December 2015 but don't see it in my "best of" list of 2015, so here it is for 2016. I had watched the movie twenty-five years ago and hadn't cared for it. Scarlett played by Vivien Leigh was insufferable, while she comes across as a flawed but fascinating human being on the page. The nauseating nostalgia for times gone by (with plantations, slaves etc) in the movie is replaced by a strong focus on Scarlett's family home of Tara without as many of nauseating aspects. I got the e-book on the advice of a writer friend, and was amazed by how much of a page-turner it is. It is a pity Mitchell didn't write more, but Gone with the Wind is her masterpiece. 

 

 

 

Nonfiction

FolliesOfGodFollies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog by James Grissom. Because each chapter is about a different woman that inspired Tennessee Williams in some way, the risk was real to create a series of vignettes the reader would never connect to. Yet, Grissom makes Williams masterfully come to life and even incited me to watch the DVD versions of lesser-known plays by Williams such as the Night of the Iguana, in addition to providing fascinating insights into some of the greatest stage actresses of the time. 

 

 

 

 

StellaAdlerIbsenStella Adler on Ibsen, Stringberg and Chekhov by Stella Adler. The late Adler can illuminate a classic like no one else. I bought it for the part on Chekhov but loved her comments on Ibsen as well. As for Stringberg... I still don't care for his work, but that's not Adler's fault. Read the post I wrote about the book here.

 

 

 

 

 

NixonOneManAgainstOne Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner. I find Nixon fascinating in the sheer complexity of his personality, the scope of his hubris, the story he told himself about the world (Weiner's book title gives that part away) and his massive fall from grace.

 

 

 

 

 

DidionWhiteAlbumThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion. Until I read the White Album I was convinced Didion was overrated, especially because of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I liked the Broadway one-woman show that came from it. Then I realized what a remarkable writer a younger Didion was. 

 

 

 

 

 

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare. Or what happens when power goes to someone's head, and his wife's too. In the words of the Amazon.com blurb: "Perhaps no other Shakespearean drama so engulfs its readers in the ruinous journey of surrender to evil as does Macbeth. A timeless tragedy about the nature of ambition, conscience, and the human heart, the play holds a profound grip on the Western imagination."

 

 

 

 

 

SomewhereSomewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill. The definitive biography of Robbins, which makes both the choreographer and the times come to life on the page. A real page-turner, at least for people like me who love modern dance. No man has had more impact on Broadway musicals and ballet alike. We owe him the choreographies for West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, among many others. He was a commanding presence at New York City Ballet for many years, known for his commitment to excellence and exacting standards (that is the positive way to put it). Even now, NYCB continues to put on all-Robbins programs, showing that the impact he had on twentieth-century dance continues today. Off stage, he is also known for testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and giving names. The PBS American Masters documentary on Robbins is based on this book; you can read my blog post about that here.

 


Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art

ZadieSmith-SwingTimeOn Saturday I attended a reading and talk by Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she promoted her latest book, Swing Time. The ticket included a copy of the book, and I also picked up her first novel, White Teeth, and her collection of essays Changing My Mind from the DMA bookstore since - dare I admit it? - I'd never read a book by Zadie Smith before. As a matter of fact, the only piece I'd read by her before was the phenomenal On Optimism and Despair, published in December in the New York Review of Books

Smith began by reading from the middle of her book for about 15 minutes (the 2nd trip of the narrator to Africa) and then spent about 45 minutes to 1 hour in conversation with Kris Boyd, host(ess) of the Think! program on the KERA TV/radio station, before opening to Q&A. Throughout, she proved herself to be an articulate speaker who thinks on her feet. I didn't take down any notes, so I bear all responsibility if I remember something incorrectly. 

Overall I was struck by how down-to-earth yet well-spoken Smith was. For instance, when asked about blackface (the book starts with the narrator watching on TV Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie Swing Time, Astaire who imitates Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing while he wears blackface), she was careful to speak against general statements and preferred looking at the details of each appropriation instead. In this case, Astaire doesn't have his lips painted white and doesn't make wild, grotesque gestures, as would be expected in blackface. Instead, according to Smith, he does his best to imitate Bojangles as well as possible to provide a record of the way the man danced. Bojangles was a tap dancing icon and nothing would remain of his performances if it hadn't been for Astaire trying to record himself as Bojangles for posterity. 

A powerful moment in the evening was when she talked about the obscenity of people being denied the opportunity of realizing their potential because of how they're being written off due to their poverty. She also talked a bit about her mother, the first trip to Jamaica (where her mother's family is from) where the two of them stayed in a hotel instead of with relatives and the dichotomy between those two worlds, the Jamaican world of her family and the Jamaican world of the tourism business, especially given that the hotels tend to be owned not by locals but by German or Swiss companies,  the small hut, now half-destroyed, where her mother had grown up, and the current political situation, especially the possibility of the incoming president reducing aid to Africa, where Smith brought up the fact that developed countries have had a long tradition of exploiting African resources through some of their companies established there and that the African situation can't be resolved without a hard look at what those companies are doing to the African ecosystem. She mentioned Liberia but stopped short of referring to a specific company by name.

She also remarked that some reviewers had believed the unnamed African country that provides the backdrop for a part of the book was Senegal, when in fact it was its neighbor Gambia. I haven't read that part of the book yet but apparently she uses city names from Gambia, and compared the mistake to setting a novel in Paris without saying it's France and having a reviewer says it's set in Spain, but was also the first one to forgive the reviewers, having been a book reviewer herself and gotten boxes with one hundred books inside to read in a matter of weeks.  

To read the rest of my account of the evening and my comments on the book, please click here


Why isn't Jane Smiley more famous?

GoldenAge-JaneSmileyThis is the question LitHub contributor Rumaan Alam asks, in a slightly more convoluted way: "Why wasn't Great American Novelist on the Cover of a Magazine?" (and if you care about literature you absolutely have to read LitHub.) The subtitle is: "Rumaan Alam on how we still judge women writers by a different standard." I don't know if it's true, but having recently finished the third part of Smiley's trilogy The Last Hundred Years (A Family Sage): Golden Age, there is no doubt in my mind that she is an infinitely better writer than, say, Garth Risk Hallberg, who received a two million dollar advance for his 900-page debut novel City on Fire, which I reviewed here. And I liked Hallberg's novel enough, except that his characters never had a clear want that would've compelled me to turn the page so that I read it for his wonderful sense of detail but with no interest in what happened to his cast.

By comparison, Smiley's trilogy has a total of 1,200 pages, and while it is maddeningly difficult to keep track of who is who among her clan members at times, they come to life on the page as real individuals who like some of their relatives, dislike others, backstab, lie, face grief, lend an ear, and go through so much in the space of a century - with each year being devoted one chapter - that one can only be in awe by Smiley's tour-de-force. To put things in perspective, Margaret Mitchell only wrote Gone with the Wind. Smiley has written 14 novels, including Pulitzer-Prize winning A Thousand Acres (and also short story collections, nonfiction books and young adult novels). 

Her trilogy is anchored in the times her characters live in, displaying a remarkable level of knowledge on recent history (and specialized topics such as Iowa farming, where Smiley is helped by the time she spent on the faculty at the University of Iowa). This makes her book better than another book recently praised to the skies by the publisher gods, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Again, like Hallberg's, Yanagihara's book is quite a good book, but although it is set in New York City it is not grounded in the times where the protagonists live, maybe in a misguided attempt to be timeless, and so it falls short of being the Great American Novels marketers said it was when it first came out.   

When it comes to craftmanship, plot, subplots, arc development, character growth, sensory details - when it comes to anything of relevance to writing good fiction, in fact, Smiley beats all those younger writers hands down. I was simply stunned by her ambition and her mastery. It is a rare writer who sets herself such a high goal and is able to pull it off. So why are the younger writers the ones everyone talks about? 

Alam argues it has something to do with being a woman writer, but Yanagihara is a woman writer too. So I'll venture another reason: the books that gather the most publicity, whether warranted or otherwise, are the ones about New York City. For the publishing world, most of which is based in NYC, it seems that the Great American Novel has to be about NYC. And then when they find something that fits the bill, they scream their head off (through outsized marketing budgets) that they have found it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least in terms of attention and sales. (Hallberg's sales are said to have been disappointing but that is only relative when you have to make up a multi-million-dollar advance - as of December 2015, this New York Times article mentions 30,000 copies sold in hardcover, which a lot of writers would find a very honorable number.)

Apparently, farmers in Iowa (and their progeny, who scatters across the US) don't fit the bill for the publishers-approved Great American Novel label, which is curious, since farming has played such a key role in the U.S. history and of the 320 million of people living in the U.S. as of 2014, only 20 million live in metro NYC. Of course, there is an element of calculation involved in publishers' labels: Jane Smiley is, after all, Jane Smiley: Pulitzer-Prize winner, highly established, very well respected, an icon of literature. The newcomers who write a novel about NYC as their first or second book, like Hallberg or Yanagihara, need more help to get their names out. Still, it annoys me that Smiley's masterpiece isn't the one creating all the buzz this year, and I keep going back to Alam's article, asking myself: would a male writer of Smiley's age and reputation have received more attention, more reviews in the press, greater word-of-mouth? Yet, it is only a side issue. The fact of the matter is, Smiley is a writer who dares tackle big issues rather than chick lit, writes about war, death, politics, betrayal, ambition, grief, and she is an inspiration to those of us who want novels to be about more than beach reads - who want novels to be as important in understanding our world than the best-researched nonfiction. What a great writer she is.


Book Review: "City on Fire" vs "Emperor's Children"

CityOnFireI'm reading City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a debut novel about New York City in the late 1970s, famous both for its 2-million-dollar advance and its 900-page length. It's been described as the "it" novel of the year and received a glowing review in the New York Times but also less enthusiastic reviews, especially because of its length, in other outlets such as NPR and the New York Review of Books. I'm only about a third in (that's 300 pages or a full book length) but so far I both actually like the book and understand why people find it flawed. Hallberg's love of language shines through with incredibly vivid prose and pitch-perfect choice of details. His setting is breathtakingly ambitious: he chose an ensemble cast, which he follows over several months leading to the Great Blackout of the summer of 1977 (changing POVs in different chapters). He is a knack for making characters come alive that writers like me find outright inspirational. But it is also very slow-moving with no compelling goal for the characters. We just follow them and admire the prose and learn about the late 1970s in New York City. It is a book I may pick up again if I want to brush up on 3rd person limited point-of-view or learn more vocabulary, but not to re-read a scene that particularly moved me. The book is technically dazzling but emotionally flat. 

I am reminded of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, which I find to suffer from the same flaws. And I am among the few people who actually liked that book, although the ending was wrong and emotionally tone-deaf (the events of September 11, 2001 bring to light a husband's affair since he was supposed to be out of town, although he was really meeting his mistress, but all the flights are cancelled after the attacks and so he walks back to his home, where his wife [if I remember correctly] opens the door). Messud was pilloried for the way she used September 11, and detractors had a point, although that part of the novel is very short - the novel is almost over by then. But I remember marveling at the texture of her descriptions, the use of sensory details, her ability to conjure a real world in front of our eyes. Her characters weren't particularly inspiring (they did have stronger goals than Hallberg's but they were also a bit self-centered) but they were interesting enough until close to the end. The Emperor's Children also had been touted as something akin to the Great American Novel when it appeared - until then Messud had published in indie presses, short books, small print runs. Then she tackled New York City at a critical point of its history and fame followed.

Messud's publisher went for a very large print run off the bat, if I remember correctly, generating a buzz. Similarly, Hallberg's advance was bound to raise eyebrows. Other books that have received a very large amount of media attention in recent years include The Flamethrowers (very good overall, and with a heroine with strong goals) and A Little Life (I haven't read it but it's on my bookshelves - it is supposed to be the best of the lot). They are all novels in and about New York City, although Flamethrowers also has chapters in Italy. I suppose the predominance of NYC in novels praised to the sky by book marketers is to be expected since so much of the publishing industry is located in NYC, but really, there is life and civilization outside New York. People outside NY even have goals and ambition, imagine that. There are plenty of really good stories to be told about the non-NY part of the United States, if anyone cares. Let me venture the possibility that there could be a Great American Novel set outside New York. (And my novels aren't set in the United States so I'm not competing in that race, for the record.) Yet, marketers seem to always praise highly novels about New York City (not just set in New York City, but novels that have the city as a key character), and readers invariably seem to want different things, such as plot and pace and character development. But neither marketers nor readers change their way, so I suppose there's an equilibrium in there, of hope and disappointment and never-ending wait for the Great American Novel of our times. In the meantime, you can re-read John Dos Passos's American Trilogy (1200 pages of the Great American Novel of the 1910s-20s in three books. Maybe if Hallberg had had to publish his book in three parts he would have given his characters more intermediary goals.)

This being said, City on Fire is not a bad book if you want to improve your craft, both for its many great positives and its few flaws, which serve as lessons to avoid. I'm not sure if the book will hold my interest for its entirety (I have other books I want to read and limited time), but the beauty of the prose makes it worth the purchase. Amazon.com is still selling the paperback at a deep discount (46% as of this writing, similar to the discount I got when I bought it about a month ago), which suggests the book still isn't selling as much as either Amazon.com or the publisher wants. It may not be one of the best books of the year, media buzz notwithstanding, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and so deserves a look from anyone who cares about good writing. Hallberg is a writer to watch. And to read.


15 best books I've read in 2015

(I have no idea why the pictures of the book covers below don't display in three rows of five like they're supposed to and no time to figure it out so let's pretend I meant to have it look like that - it does look very artistic... -AT)

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Here are my 15 favorite books that I've read in 2015 (in no particular order):

  1. Aaron Copland: The life and work of an uncommon man by Howard Pollack
  2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  3. Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan
  4. Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume I From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore
  5. The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham
  6. The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken 
  7. Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  8. Richard III by William Shakespeare
  9. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
  10. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
  11. Havel: A life by Michael Zantovsky
  12. Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance by Marcia Siegel
  13. Scars of Sweet Paradise: The life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols
  14. Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
  15. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

And...

51n0nJ0YHSL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_ 51Ybpuv04VL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_As bonus book in the list, I also want to mention Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas. Since I got it as an audiobook, I'm reluctant to include it in a list of books I've read, but it provides a fascinating and instructive perspective into the life and downfall of the former President.

Finally, I prepared this post before I had finished reading the poetry collection Empty Chairs by Liu Xia, and in hindsight it should probably be in my Top 15. I'll let you decide which book above it should dethrone. 

Best wishes for a happy 2016 full of joy, success, good health and books!