Summer book recs from Díaz, Tartt, Adrian, me…

bks-abouttheauthorThe Daily Beast asked some writers — Donna Tartt, Junot Díaz, Chris Adrian, Geoff Dyer, Karen Russell, Sherman Alexie, Siri Hustvedt, Darin Strauss, Téa Obreht, Kathryn Stockett, Alexandra Fuller, Anne Enright, Elisabeth Kostova, Alexander McCall Smith, and me — about our favorite summer books.

Mine is John Colapinto’s first (and, so far, only) novel, About the Author. What I said:

I read John Colapinto’s hilarious, propulsive, and gorgeously written About the Author in a single day almost exactly eight years ago, before the rise, demise, and resurrection of James Frey, when I knew next to nothing about publishing but had great expertise in planning to write and not writing. The novel’s narrator, Cal Cunningham, has also perfected this skill. A supposed wordsmith, he spends his days shelving books at a big midtown bookstore, nights going from bar to bar picking up girls and getting laid, and Sunday mornings filling his dull law student roommate in on his escapades. Our hero’s sense of superiority is shattered when he discovers that the roommate hasn’t been locked in his room typing tedious legal briefs but working on a novel, one that’s actually good, one that sounds suspiciously like Cunningham’s own life, so much so that when the roommate dies unexpectedly… Well, I’ve already said too much, but it’s a remarkable book, a confessional literary thriller that makes you care about its plagiarist narrator even as it reveals him to be a coward and a liar and satirizes the publishing and media world that exalts him.

I’ve been blogging so long, I can point exactly to when I first read About the Author, a gift from Emma early in our friendship. (I didn’t know then that the novel took Colapinto thirteen years to write. No judgment here.)

Head over to the Daily Beast for the other picks.



Chandler’s fab Hollywood screed: relevant as ever

My contribution to the “Why’s This So Good?” series — a collaboration between Longreads, Alexis Madrigal, and Nieman Storyboard’s Andrea Pitzer designed to explore “what makes classic narrative nonfiction stories worth reading” — is about Raymond Chandler’s 1945 “Writers in Hollywood,” a scathing attack on the motion picture industry.

Chandler “brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote ‘The Big Sleep,’ the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.” And the critique isn’t just a dusty object of curiosity from the vaults; it’s relevant now.

In the heyday of the Hollywood novelist-screenwriter, a slew of literary talents – Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley, to name just a few – did time writing film scripts because they were easy money. Now, in the new narrative TV landscape, it’s cable companies that are signing novelists and memoirists in droves. Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are just a few recent hires. Given that fiction writers like Richard Price and George Pelacanos helped shape “The Wire,” arguably the most interesting story of our time, the focus on novelists makes a certain amount of sense. But how much creative control will they have? And will cable TV, too, eventually become too rigid to allow innovation?

You can read the rest, along with prior installments from Alexis Madrigal, Radhika Jones, Carl Zimmer, and Chris Jones, over at the Nieman Storyboard site.

Previously: Ten novels and short stories that would make good movies (at IFC) and notes following The Wire season 5 premiere.



What each generation can’t learn from the last

“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing. In this respect every generation begins primitively, has no different task from that of every previous generation, nor does it get further, except in so far as the preceding generation shirked its task and deluded itself. This authentically human factor is passion, in which also the one generation perfectly understands the other and understands itself. Thus no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the preceding generation…”

— Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie



Joan Didion on psychiatric trends and diagnoses

In her forthcoming memoir, Blue Nights, Joan Didion remembers the way her daughter’s (above, left) psychiatric diagnosis kept changing. Manic depression became OCD; OCD became something else, something Didion can’t remember now, but something that ultimately gave way to a succession of other conditions before “the least programmatic of her doctors settled on one that actually seemed to apply”: borderline personality disorder.

Diagnosis never seems to lead to a cure, Didion observes, only an enforced debility. But as with a psychiatric evaluation of herself conducted in 1968 and excerpted in The White Album (and quoted in part below), Didion sees and reflects on the truths of the assessment even as she ponders it at arm’s length.

I’ll have much more to say about her new book when it’s out in November, but this paradoxical blend of skepticism, acceptance, and astringent detachment in matters pertaining to psychology and its insights and connection to the culture has always characterized Didion’s writing. It’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to her work.

In the title essay of The White Album, the one that begins with the famous line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she recalls “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition, but one I found troubling.” She continues:

I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the mid-point of my life I wanted still to believe in narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical…

Continue reading…