Author Archives: Mike

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena?

FA Luminaries FA review tag

According to a seemingly sensible blog on astrology, Eleanor Catton was a shoe-in to win the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her second novel The Luminaries. Born in late September 1985 when the “Sun is conjunct Mercury in Libra,” Catton’s “destiny indicator” should have tipped off those making wagers at Ladbrokes that her “destiny based on prior life talents was about to blossom.”

It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Catton was born in 1985! And this is her second novel! The astrology stuff is pretty interesting too.

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Fiction Advocate of the Day: Google

Steinbeck

Today’s Google doodle celebrates the 112th birthday of John Steinbeck.  And while it passes over what is arguably his greatest work, East of Eden, it is still pretty wonderful.

Happy birthday John Steinbeck.

And while I’m at it, happy birthday to my sister and fellow East of Eden fan Samantha Moats, who continues to remind me of something Steinbeck wrote: “I guess a loving woman is indestructible.”

- Michael Moats

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Master’s Bait

CT Writers Room

If you were debating whether or not to take that loan to get your Master’s degree in creative writing, the New York Times T Magazine has just the thing to send you running to the closest available co-signer.

In their most recent issue, T features famous writers in the spaces where they workWitness Colson Whitehead casually sipping from his mug among his brilliant clutter. Observe Mona Simpson, red-lining stories on a reclaimed wood kitchen table in what appears to be a Williams Sonoma catalog shoot. Ponder whether Joyce Carol Oates has more published books, or more pictures of her own face in her office.

JCO

These are the idyllic lands of sagging shelves, sloped ceilings and soft light through the window. The kinds of rooms that most writers wish they were actually heading to when they go to whatever restaurant or cubicle where they spend their money-making time.  Whitehead says that even having a great room isn’t enough, and he moves his desk around wondering “Where’s the mojo these days? What room, what corner? How about by the window, one story above the street?” I did most of my best writing so far in a near-frozen storage space/extra bedroom facing a filthy Washington, DC alleyway — a view that didn’t matter because the sun was rarely up yet, and the dust-grimed blinds were always down. But I wrote some things there that I still find appealing.  

If you have a great place where you get your writing done, send it to us. We’ll put you on the internet.

- Michael Moats

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Great Moments from the Sunday Book Review: Bad Book Reviews

FA BuzzFeed_Badges

I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does.

In this particular line from this week’s Bookends column written alongside Zoe Heller, Francine Prose encapsulates the value of negative book reviews.

The debate as to whether we need negative book reviews has been raging (as much as any debate about book reviews “rages”) for a few weeks now. Prose and Heller agree that bad book reviews can be a good thing. They’re right, though Heller is a little rough on Isaac Fitzgerald, who has publicly refused to run negative reviews in his new role as books editor for Buzzfeed. Fitzgerald’s decision, and the justification he has given for it, do reek of the earnest positivism in which everything we read online these days should be worthy of upping, but it is not out of range for Buzzfeed. That, and it has a concurrent justification in terms of sheer utility: When someone is choosing between a Buzzfeed book review or one of the 87 other things you can read on any given Buzzfeed page — including, presumably, a post titled 87 Things You Can Read Instead of a Negative Book Review — why ask them to endure a downer?

All that said, I stand firmly with Prose and Heller. I enjoy reading authors who can deliver a deserving takedown, and on occasion I like writing one myself. Granted, the fun pales in comparison to the impatient joy I get when hearing that I absolutely must read a certain book. But having been through an MFA writing program, I recognize bad book reviews as one of the last defenses against novels that are simply recognized for having “strong dialogue” or “an opening line that really hooks readers.”

At any rate, it is refreshing to hear a full-throated defense of high standards. In a world where we accept that The Learning Channel can run “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the right amount of negativity and rejection can be deeply affirming.

Read the full Bookends column.

- Michael Moats

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Hard Refresh

FA Bleeding EdgeFA review tag

In Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, lovable lead and burnout Los Angeles private investigator Doc Sportello stumbles across an early iteration of the world wide web. A young kid named Sparky, which in the Pynchon universe may be a nickname or an actual name, helps Doc use the emerging technology to track down a lead on a missing person, and adds that “someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”

The line felt like a teaser for Pynchon works to come. Expectations (mine, at least) went higher when it was made known that Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge would be set in 2001, his first foray into the networked age. It was reasonable to assume that the novel would center around precisely the kind of monitoring and manipulation that has paranoiacs and libertarians and even average citizens riled up these days. The approach would be perfectly consistent with his well-worn subjects of paranoia and conspiracy, not to mention journeys, as skips try to find places to skip to.

Which explains why it takes a while to realize that paranoia is not really what Bleeding Edge is about.  Continue reading

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Fiction Advocate of the Day: B.J. Novak

aka Ryan from The Office. Not as well known as a writer and director on the same show. He wins today for making a book trailer I actually enjoyed watching.

Novak’s collection of stories, One More Thing, comes out on February 4th. Pre-Regular-order it here.

C’est ce qu’elle a dit.

- Michael Moats

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WHAT TO READ: “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” by Greg Grandin

FA MELVILLE

Last weekend the New York Times ran an interesting piece on race, politics, the Tea Party and President Obama.

That’s something you could say most weekends, really. But last weekend, the piece also used a lesser-known Herman Melville novel Benito Cereno as the basis for some of the most clarifying insights the paper has yet published in its multiple attempts to define our odd moment of supposedly post-racial politics.

Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the most despairing stories in American literature. Amasa Delano represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness.

The article is a fascinating exploration of the racial tension and fear we tend to encounter today: Innocently ignorant; exploited by those who know how to tap into its fervor while staying verbally sanitary and maintaining plausible deniability; a racism that most people will insist does not exist.

If you’ve ever struggled to explain why the Tea Party or blanket Republican opposition to everything Obama is rooted in racism — or at least empowered by it — “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” offers at least part of the answer. It skips over the obvious, lingering stereotypes, like assuming that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is nothing but a dumb thug* when the dude has a degree from Stanford University. Instead, it lays bare the forces that enable someone as lacking in content of character as Sarah Palin to “honor” Martin Luther King, Jr. by upbraiding the nation’s first African American President for “playing the race card.”

Despite the indignity sparked by the words of worthless commentators like Palin, the article, and Melville’s novel, should be read as sympathetic. Rather than exposing villainy, the piece reveals a common reflex of the human condition, and the blindspot it tends to occupy. Something that is difficult to erase or overcome, no matter how many times Upworthy makes you feel bad about it. Just because someone is engaged in the great white wail, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically a dick.

Read “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” at the New York Times.

* Tensions run high here, so let me just be clear that no one is saying he’s not an asshole. Aside from our editor Brian, who is San Francisco through and through, this blog takes no position on that matter except to say that being an asshole is something that has always transcended categories of division.

- Michael Moats

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Book of Today: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

blood-meridian

Because… well, you should just see for yourself.

- Michael Moats

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