Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Comment: More Links, Review #23, BEA Anxiety

Between reading and gathering the "cold call" blogger conversation and frantically emailing everyone under the sun with BEA plans, there's been almost no time for the regular stuff of the blog. I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon for Book Expo America in Washington, D.C., and I'm hoping to get in one last post before then about my hopes and excitement about the conference. But today I want to get to the odds and ends that are in danger of falling through the cracks.

The Best American Fiction of the Last 25 Years
The New York Times asked several hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" what they believed was the best American novel since 1980, giving them no list to choose from and completely free range to pick their favorite. The winner(s) are here. Definitely click on the always hilarious A.O. Scott's essay for some thoughtful analysis of the results.

Toni Morrison's BELOVED got the most votes in a wide-open contest -- though interestingly, almost every other vote went to a white male (only one other woman, Marilynne Robinson, made the list). This is especially interesting since the last time a similar poll was conducted, in 1965, Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN won the day in a field also otherwise dominated by white guys. The poll seems to indicate that Americans (or the American literary establishment) like their fiction epic, familial and political/cultural, and they're mistrustful of the greatness of those under 40. Fair enough. It will be food for thought for the next weeks and years, I expect -- there will be a panel discussing the results at BEA, and I'm looking forward to hearing more analysis, and maybe even reading some more of these newer classics.

Handselling: An Amateur's Take
Here's a funny piece in the Times with Henry Alford's take on handselling, from the perspective of a streetside book table. The odd thing is that Alford seems to have the impression that handselling is what you do to the books that no one wants to buy, whereas my experience has always been that handselling is what you do to the books you truly love that might be overlooked. But it's a great little piece on retail and New York street culture nonetheless. I know from the experience of putting out a box labeled "FREE BOOKS" on our stoop (in the interest of clearing off our groaning bookshelves) that New Yorkers will pick up almost any reading material if it looks like a bargain.

Death of a Poetry Icon
Stanley Kunitz, U.S. Poet Laureate, gardener, and mentor, has died. He was 100 years old. Shelf Awareness provided this link to a lovely piece in the Washington Post with memories by poets and others who loved him.

I saw Kunitz several times at readings and poetry events -- one particularly wonderful one where other poets, including Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell read and talked about Kunitz' own poems. He was already very old then, of course -- he started writing in the 1920s. I always thought that his voice sounded a little like Winnie the Pooh, and he looked like a very wise and beautiful turtle. It was kind of appropriate to his gentle, Zen-like persona. He was an endearing personality and a great poet, with a wonderful legacy to those who knew him and read him. Pick up his COLLECTED POEMS if you get a chance -- his work is accessible and endlessly rich.

Review #23

by Rachel Kadish
(Houghton Mifflin, September 2006)

What is chicklit, actually? You could define the genre as being primarily concerned with contemporary women, with their romances, friendships, and careers. If that's the case, Rachel Kadish writes chicklit for the intellectual girl. She has both a fierce and searching intelligence and a feel for contemporary romantic mores, and she brings them both to bear on this book -- which I loved more than I would have anticipated.

The title refers to perhaps one of the most famous lines in literature, the opening of ANNA KARENINA: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I remember reading a critic at one point who pointed out that Tolstoy's novel actually complicated that sentence, proving ultimately that all families are unhappy in different ways. The contention of Tracy Farber, the literature professor heroine of TOLSTOY LIED, is that that's the wrong complication. Happiness, she secretly believes, isn't blandly uniform; it's as complex as unhappiness, and just as worth studying, despite the skewing of high literature toward the tragic. In addition to her duties teaching 20th century American literature at a New York university (which I expect is modeled closely on NYU, based on the descriptions of the English department building), she's gathering evidence for a sweeping indictment of literature's prejudice against the reality of happiness.

Her life reflects this as well: she's scratching out truly happy existence as a single person, despite her girlfriends' admonishments and attempts at blind dates. I found Tracy the most convincing woman defined primarily -- and happily -- by her work I'd ever read, even though eventually, of course, a man comes on the scene. He's George, an earnest, un-Ironic Canadian former fundamentalist, and Tracy falls, carefully, and in spite of herself. The narrative of their slow getting to know each other also rings true, as does her complete panic when she finds herself engaged after two months of bliss. In the face of tons of conflicting advice, Tracy has to figure out how to be true to herself and honest with her lover, and the price is high: George can't understand her pulling back, and leaves. But we're only halfway through the book at that point, so you know there's a lot more to come.

In some ways, the plot is a recognizable one: girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl has horrible boss (played in this case by a bitter and sniping professorial colleague who represents the worst academic departmental politics has to offer). There's even a gay friend, a married woman friend, a childhood best guy friend, and a serially monogamous actress friend -- all types I feel like I've seen before. But somehow Kadish makes all totally real. Maybe it's because of her insistence on writing dialogue the way real people -- okay, real women -- talk to each other: full of half-digested psychology, moments of self-knowledge, and reaching for generalizations, in the process of groping toward an understanding of themselves and their loved ones, taking it as seriously as real women do. Maybe it's because she almost never mentions clothes, except on the flamboyant actress, and in one scene where Tracy is dressing for a party (which is when we all think about clothes). Mostly it's because our heroine's job isn't a means for finding a man, or killing time until she does -- it's her passion, and she spends as much time thinking about it as she does thinking about romance.

However Kadish did it, I'm really impressed. I was consumed with suspense for how Tracy's story would turn out: I expected a happy ending, given Tracy's academic preoccupation, but I suspected it would be a complicated one, given her 21st-century feminism, and I was right. You could read this one on the beach -- and then you could talk about it with your smartest female (or otherwise) friends for weeks afterward. It made me feel a little bit ashamed for certain remarks I've made about chicklit, and grateful that there are smart women out there writing about our real lives with such life and wit. And as a cockeyed optimist myself, I'm all for literature that takes happiness seriously.