The National Book Critics Circle and the American Library Association both had book award events this week-- one to name their shortlists, the other to name their winners. Those lists can be found elsewhere on this blog. In the meantime, there is a lot of other book media to talk about.
Charlies Isherwood reviews Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson, about Shakespeare's more famous (at the time they were alive) fellow writer and compatriot. In his review, Isherwood points out "Jonson was the more celebrated and multifariously accomplished figure during his time and in the years immediately after his death in 1637, but his plays are produced relatively rarely today "” only "Volpone" and "The Alchemist" are widely known "” and his poetry is read more rarely still. Shakespeare has emerged as the great genius of the age, the author of plays that will hold the stage as long as there are stages to hold, and a cycle of sonnets that are almost equally prized." Mark a point for posterity. You may be underappreciated (maybe that's the wrong word) today, but be assured that hundreds of years from now you may be celebrated as a genius. But if that's the case, why should we read about Ben Jonson today? For one, Isherwood calls it "deeply researched but happily readable." Two, Jonson-- who was a literary giant in his own right-- led a life that was worlds more interesting than Shakespeare's, whose "comparative invisibility during his lifetime has certainly posed intractable problems in the centuries since his death, as the eternal and tedious arguments over the authorship of his plays illustrate. Had he the foresight to make himself the colorful and combative public figure Jonson was "” jailed several times, famed for insobriety, sometime friend and sometime foe of the mighty names of his age "” we would not be plagued by the rankling theories of the Oxfordians that still clamor today." And finally, this behavior helped to establish the writer as a presence in English life-- Jonson was "Britain's first literary celebrity." Score one for Ben Jonson.
After pointing out that Ben Marcus has only written four books in his 20-year career, he describes Marcus's work as having "earned him critical praise and a small army of devoted fans," and as having, until now, "forsaken the conventional trappings of narrative." But, Lennon points out, "The Flame Alphabet, his first new book in a decade, has the feel of an event. And though it is recognizably by the same author, it is also something of a surprise. It has a plot, and a protagonist, and at times it even threatens to become a thriller."
A book that will most certainly be subject to personal taste is That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz. Why would anybody want to read that? you might ask. Reviewer Robin Marantz Henig gives the following analysis: "Disgust, Herz writes, is one of 'the six basic human emotions' (along with happiness, sadness, anger, fear and surprise) that any healthy adult 'can experience and recognize.' She says emotional disgust is the only one, among living creatures, that's unique to humans, and the only one that has to be learned." Rather than list all the disgusting things in this book, I will give you a link to the review, in which you may peruse the various disgusting foods, etc. yourself. For those brave (or just curious) enough to read the review, they may find in these gross details a reaction that's deeper than they'd anticipated. As the review puts it, "'What is disgusting, or not, is in the mind of the beholder,' Herz writes. Disgust is not an automatic reaction, like fear; it's 'an unfolding and cognitive emotion.'"
The LA Times reviews a new biography on Roger Williams entitled Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. Reviewer Scott Martelle succinctly summarizes the book when he writes, "Williams, for those who don't remember their colonial history, founded the European settlement that gave rise to Providence, R.I., in pursuit of the still-gestating idea that people should be able to worship God in individual freedom, not as a dictum of government. In doing so, Barry writes, Williams 'created the first government in the world which broke church and state apart.'"
David L. Ulin begins his review of Koonchung Chan's The Fat Years: A Novel by paraphrasing E.M. Forster-- "fiction is an art of narrative, of emotion, defined by the singular movements of individuals as they navigate specific corners of the world." He then moves on to Jane Smiley, quoting her as having said that one of the great pleasure of a novel is-- beyond story and character-- "the pleasure I gained from the author's passing observations or remarks. I came to see these passing phrases as "¦ precious artifacts of what a man "” say, Walter Scott "” happened to see one day while he was walking down a street in 1810; or what a woman, Elizabeth Bowen, happened to feel one evening while dancing the fox-trot in 1925; or what another man, Nikolai Gogol, happened to smell and hear by the banks of the Dnieper River one morning in 1820." We learn that the book is set in 2013, after a major world economic crisis has left China the lone economically and socially stable country in the world. The novel describes the lives of Chinese citizens-- members of a dominant, rising, successful China-- that isn't much different than the lives of many living there today. There is too much information, too much to do, and by keeping busy one never really connects to the world around them. According to Ulin, "This is what Forster and Smiley were getting at, and it's a key factor in The Fat Years as well. Here, Chan has crafted a cunning caricature of modern China, with its friction between communism and consumerism, its desire to reframe the Revolution in terms of 'market share and the next big thing.' But he has also identified a deeper dislocation, one stretching from China to the world."
Reviewer Mike Downey writes that his two favorite Elmore Leonard characters are Chili Palmer from Get Shorty and a newspaper reporter from Be Cool described as "Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times." But, Mike Downey from the Los Angeles Times declares, "a fast-rising star with a badge... is U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who has developed a cult following on FX's"Justified"and makes a return to the printed page as the titular figure of Raylan: A Novel, a new work of fiction from the 86-year-old Leonard and a real corker at that." Downey adds, "The new year is a happier one already for aficionados of America's top crime novelists. That is because, along with T. Jefferson Parker and a snarling, teeth-baring rip-snorter called The Jaguar (Charlie Hood), a couple of our most creative writers are back and in good form. Their flawed but basically heroic lawmen "” Charlie Hood being the Parker brand "” are men of action, written with wit. A law gets bent here and there, but who cares?"
None other than Microsoft's Bill Gates reviews Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy by Andrew Rosen. Gates points out that "Rosen is chief executive at Kaplan, Inc., a for-profit educational services company." He also states that "Rosen offers a prescription that will rankle some traditionalists in academia," a prescription with which Gates says he is "in radical agreement." What Rosen is concerned about is the college dropout rate in this country. We've dropped from first to tenth in college graduation rate. Of those who enter college or postsecondary training, barely a third will earn a degree. Gates explains, "To better meet the needs of all students, Rosen suggests creating a common yardstick based on seven risk factors identified by the U.S. Department of Education that make students less likely to graduate." Gates agrees with this. And he agrees that for-profit companies should take a more prominent role in education. Radical.
Helen Berry's book has a title suited for fiction, but, we learn, it is a true-life account of a famous singer and his wife. From the title, you might glean that the famous singer had some extenuating circumstances surrounding his being, but that doesn't seem to have slowed him down in the love department. Reviewer Michael S. Roth describes a fascinating account of fame, love, art, and fate, and more. According to the review, The Castrato and His Wife is "a fascinating account of how masculinity, femininity and marriage were being reshaped in 18th-century Europe just when modernity was taking shape."
The Financial Times has a long and interesting piece about authors who tackle sports in their writing, and the different approaches that American and English authors take.
In honor of the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dragon The Guardian has a literary dragon poll. Try it if you dare. Or care.
Galley Cat has a link to an interesting blog post about bestselling books with lots of negative, one-star reviews. The idea behind the post is that bad reviews don't necessarily result in bad sales. Do you buy that?
USA Today has a teaser story on a book entitled Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books from the Unpacking My Library series. There's a slideshow, and frankly, I wish it had been a little longer-- but then this wouldn't have been a teaser story, would it?
We already put this up on Facebook; but for those who haven't seen it, this is worth taking a look: