Top Ten Books of 2008

As this grim year draws to a close, the time has come to celebrate the best in books while the publishing industry celebrates the apocalypse. To read my thoughts on this year’s essays, you can head on over to The Millions, where my entry in A Year in Reading has just been posted. I’ll also be popping up later at Ready Steady Book, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Barnes & Noble Review for their respective celebrations.

What follows is an alphabetical list of the books that, in my view, mattered the most in 2008. You’ll note that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is not on this list. Why is that? Yes, I took the book with me during my Thanksgiving vacation. But I made a deliberate decision to not read it until next year. I assure you that this was not some fashionably contrarian decision. The 25 pages I’ve read have indeed been quite interesting, and I remain confident that the remaining 875 pages will prove to be more gripping than the world’s most dependable dentures. I’m certain I’ll become one of those wild-eyed acolytes naming my firstborn son “Roberto” in honor of the great dead author who may or may not have been a heroin junkie. But I’m very much of the belief that good reading involves looking between the cracks and not always reading the obvious titles. So I have decided to put off 2666 until next year, where I can read this important novel without getting lost in the hype, thereby recusing myself from any possible ethical qualms. Besides, the book needs no love from me. It continues to be heralded as the Second Coming. And I’m waiting for the FSG publicists to work their magic and have Bolaño return unexpectedly from the grave.

You will certainly not see the sleazy favoritism practiced by Sam Tanenhaus (I have tried to spread the love across multiple publishers), nor the gutless and tone-deaf choices on Jonathan Yardley’s list. The latter list surely presents a strong case for Yardley’s retirement. (In fact, you won’t find see any of their respective selections on my list.) But as a caveat, I must observe that I am friendly with a few writers on this list. This friendliness, however, has no bearing on my decision-making process. I am likewise friendly with a number of writers whose work I do not care for, but who I have always encouraged to write better. (And, no, I will not name those names. It’s hard enough to stay writing when the publishing industry remains locked in a crazed freefall.)

Selecting the best books of the year involves remembering the titles that have slipped from our memory. And I have tried to pick books that have done just that. The intriguing thoughts contained within Samantha Power’s fascinating biography, Chasing the Flame, for example, were occluded by the Hillary Clinton contretemps picked up on the gossip circuit, for which we have The Scotsman to blame. While Power’s book didn’t quite make the top ten cut, it is noted, along with a few other forgotten books, in the Honorable Mention section near the end. I must also point out that Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, despite being around 550 pages, was one of those rare novels that I simply could not put down.

It occurs to me that this is a needlessly longass introduction for a top ten list. Well, no matter. I shall try to keep my thoughts on the ten titles confined to a paragraph each.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: This was a much maligned book from a quirky talent who has had a long history of being misunderstood by the critics. Nicholson Baker never claimed to be a historian, but he did dig dutifully through newspapers, sufficiently demonstrating how some vital stories get lost in the jingoistic funhouse. Human Smoke dared to present an alternative series of events that, wherever one stands politically, made a very strong case that the events leading up to World War II (much less any history) need to be reconsidered through a different prism. Even if one disagrees with the premise that pacifism could have ended the war, there nevertheless remains a fascinating dilemma for the reader. Could it be that the established history we commonly accept isn’t nearly so comprehensive? What information are we throwing away? And what responsibility do we have in widening the floodgates decades down the line to account for our missteps in the present? (For more on this book, see the Human Smoke roundtable discussion that was conducted on these pages: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North: Recently, Gavin Grant helpfully reminded me that, as good as Daughters of the North is, there were plentiful feminist titles from the 1970s that went much further in their political ambition and sausage-slicing ideology. But Daughters of the North (known as The Carhullan Army in the UK) not only represents a natural evolution for Hall’s great writing talent, but it’s one of the few dytstopic novels of 2008 that, like Atwood’s bleak ball-busting pair (Oryx & Crake; The Handmaid’s Tale), I don’t believe will end up as a time capsule. (For more about this book, see my essay on Sarah Hall’s books for the Barnes & Noble Review. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

David Heatley, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down: I have been asked to contribute my thoughts for the Barnes and Noble Review‘s forthcoming best of books list. Since I am a man of honor when it comes to my professional duties, I feel that the right thing to do is to remain silent and mysterious . But I will fill in this blank and update this post when the link goes up. Needless to say, the book in question does fall alphabetically between “Hall” and “Hunt.” And I’m pretty sure that you can figure it out. (UPDATE: The list is now up. And you can also listen to the Segundo interview here.)

Samantha Hunt, The Invention of Everything Else: Like the work of Scarlett Thomas and Richard Powers, Samantha Hunt’s second novel is unapologetically concerned with communicating a sense of informative wonder to the reader. The book concerns Nikola Tesla’s last days in 1943, and a young chambermaid’s to understand him while her father tries to build a time machine to contact his dead wife. This unusual story, which also features several enjoyable glimpses of excitable people indulging in questionable pursuits (including an astutely realized old-time radio show), asks us to consider how much faith we should place in the crackpots of our world. Are great minds any crazier than the rapacious money men who exploit them? Would our nation be thriving right now if we dared to listen to those who are regularly discounted? (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Nam Le, The Boat: I’ve long been unnerved by the continued lionization of writers who desperately cling to their MFA toolboxes like organization men who fancy themselves longshoremen because they have seen the sea. These types often mistrust their innate voices and fear their idiosyncrasies, and we are all the lesser for it. But early in the year, this book arrived in my mailbox out of the blue. I knew very little about it, but I began reading and found myself captivated by a rare talent who thankfully can’t be pigeonholed. Nam Le writes in multiple tones and multiple locations. This astonishing debut short story collection features heartbreaking portraits of transition (“Halflead Bay”), some playful postmodernism (the opening story features a character named Nam Le), and what I interpreted (I seem to have been the only one) as a muted and juicy satire of the New York artistic life (“Meeting Elise”). (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay: The celebrated poet Sarah Manguso suffers from a rare neurological disease called CIDP. As we learn in this short but stirring memoir, the disease is so rare that many doctors don’t quite know how to treat it. Manguso tackles both the literal and metaphorical ramifications of her personal dilemma, employing both high and low language, describing how she moved in and out of hospitals, and how dealing with this disease directly affected Manguso’s life. She learns, and we learn, that living is a scenario in which we must pay attention, and that paying attention, often in ways we aren’t entirely aware of, sometimes has unexpectedly moving results for ourselves and the people around us. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing: The story goes that, over the years, Stewart O’Nan has made continued stabs at finishing this book, with the results often spilling over into other titles (such as last year’s excellent Last Night at the Lobster). But now that he’s finally completed it, O’Nan has accomplished something rather amazing here. This novel is ostensibly a mystery, in which an eighteen-year-old girl disappears and efforts are made by the family and a small Ohio town to find her. While this would seem to be a fairly typical storyline, you wouldn’t know this upon reading it. This book is one of the most astute presentations of human behavior and its unintended consequences that I’ve read this year — very much influenced by Richard Yates’s realism and rivaling Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever for a novel of this type. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve found myself passing along this title to a number of writers who simply must study the way in which O’Nan embeds quiet details within this novel, and now I feel ethically obliged to pass along this title to you. (See also the Bat Segundo interview with O’Nan for his last book, Last Night at the Lobster.)

Ed Park, Personal Days: Long-time readers of this site will know that Good Man Park and I have carried out a strange interplay in the blogosphere. But I truly didn’t expect the Other Ed (or am I the Other Ed?) to knock this one out of the park. This office novel atones for Joshua Ferris’s overrated novel, Then We Came to the End, by offering crazy literary experiments (such as one section composed of a relentless pages-long sentence “written” by a worker who lacks a period on his keyboard), and permitting Good Man Park to flex his giddiness in fictive form. My only quibble with this novel is that Park may be self-censoring himself a tad about the horrors of office life, but it’s a small point that will hopefully be rectified in future novels. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Ross Raisin, God’s Own Country: Raisin’s debut novel wasn’t nearly as well received on this side of the Atlantic as it should have been. But its sheer stylistic invention alone deserves high notice. Here is a writer who is not only willing to explore uncomfortable truths, but who has managed to use language in a way that permits us to empathize with a monster. The vernacular here doesn’t just form a parochial barrier. It may very well be one of the fundamental aspects that prevents us from helping the most troubled members of society. (See also Bat Segundo interview and my supplemental lexicon to many of the terms used in the novel.)

Leslie What, Crazy Love: This quirky short story collection has been almost completely overlooked by readers who look at the fantasy genre with the same frightened isolationism readily observed in George W. Bush’s move to a neighborhood terrified of non-Caucasian residents. That’s a great shame, because there are invaluable lessons here on how to take a wild idea and make it concise and enthralling. The collection contains unsettling allegories and gleefully imaginative premises. There isn’t a single story in here that doesn’t take some kind of narrative gamble. And while the dice-rolling doesn’t always pay off, it certainly remains hot in your hands. (See also my Washington Post roundup.)

Honorable Mention: Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (Segundo), Elizabeth Crane’s You Must Be This Happy to Enter (Segundo), Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist (Segundo) Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year (Segundo), David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (Segundo), Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (B&N Review), Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame, Mark Sarvas’s Harry, Revised (Segundo), Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation (Segundo for Spaceman Blues), and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (Segundo).

Stay Writing

Chances are that if you’re a freelance writer, some of the actions that have occurred in the past week have seriously jeopardized or dramatically affected your ability to survive.

Stay writing.

Don’t let a single person tell you that your profession isn’t a real job.

No matter how hard it gets, do something every day to ensure that you stay writing.

If you have to take non-writing work, make sure that you’ve set aside enough time for your real work. Stay writing.

Be sure to eat, sleep, rest, and see friends. But don’t slack off. Right now, you’re probably working harder than you’ve ever had to before. Yes, it’s tough. But if you’re a real writer, you’re tough. Just stay writing.

Look to your friends, family, and loved ones and tell them what your situation is. You’ve probably been there for them. Now it’s time for them to be there for you. See if they can do anything to ensure that you stay writing.

Drop a line to other writers and ensure that they stay writing. (If you need moral support, email me and I’ll do my best to respond.)

If you have not been paid for a piece that has been published more than thirty days ago, then pick up the phone, track down the appropriate person, and demand immediate payment. Don’t let them string you along. Don’t accept any bullshit excuses. You are just as much a laborer as anybody else. And this payment will help you to stay alive and stay writing.

If you are an editor, fight tooth and nail for more freelance work in your section. Even if it’s just one extra assignment in the budget, that’s one person who you’ve managed to help stay writing.

If you do not stay writing, then you are not a real writer. Period. Move over, pursue some other line of work, and step aside for someone who is willing to bust her ass every day and willing to write to the best of her ability.

If you are turning in lazy writing, then either improve your work or get out of this business. With so many unemployed writers, with possibly more jobs that are going to be cut, it is now more important than ever that writers demonstrate why writing is important. And that means writing at the top of your game.

Stay writing. And write so well that not a single soul can knock you down.


  • There are many batty angles contained within this New York Times Style piece: the notion that someone could earn a living as a “professional book-group facilitator,” the idea that a book could be discriminated against because it has book group questions in the back (when such questions can be easily ignored or torn out), or the suggested trauma that comes from the burden of selecting a title. But I will say this. Back in San Francisco, I had to try out five book clubs before I was forced to establish a book club of my own. I wanted to ensure that good books were read. I wanted to ensure that everyone had a say during the discussion. Admittedly, my standards were high. But finding a good book club is like finding a good mechanic or a good therapist. You have to dabble with a considerable number before you find the right one. At least with the book clubs, you’re not dealing with the intricate machinery of an automobile or the complex feelings of a baroque personality. (And you’re certainly not dealing with exorbitant bills.) If you can’t find the ideal book club, maybe you should test the waters and start your own. (There was also a fringe benefit I didn’t anticipate: book clubs, for whatever reason, got me dates.) In my case, it worked out well for about a year and a half before I had to give it up for other commitments (and not necessarily the kind you’re thinking, you dirty dirty reader!).
  • Thank you, David Barber, for what is quite possibly the worst lede in the Atlantic‘s history. Let us put this into perspective. David Barber is the poetry editor — a man who would, by way of his title, have some grasp of language. And this nonsense is the best he can come up with? I’ve seen better first sentences in high school essays. Hell, I’ve heard better first lines from desperate middle-aged men trying to hope to hook up with slinky women in bars. Good Christ, what has happened to the Atlantic? Britney Spears on the cover, dull writing, idiotic subjects. I check in every so often with an open mind, hoping that the Atlantic will return to what it once was when I was a subscriber. This is especially troubling, because I once referred to Harper’s, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic as the Holy Trinity. Well, now the Atlantic is firmly off the list. And I need a third magazine to complete the trinity. Any suggestions from readers? What is your Holy Trinity of Magazines? Hell, the Atlantic is so bad these days that I’d rather read an issue of Wrestling USA.
  • In fact, it’s so bad that Atlantic staffers are being commissioned for epic fail think pieces. Ben Schwarz has now teaming up with Caitlin Flanagan for this callow New York Times op-ed piece laden with generalizations. I hope that Mr. Schwarz had a cold shower just after turning in this piece. My, how the once mighty have fallen! (via LA Observed)
  • “When the Plaza Hotel reopened in March 2008 after three years and $400 million in renovations, the 805-room grande dame of the NYC hotel scene was as unrecognizable as an aging matron who Botoxed her way back to the tautness of a 25-year-old.” Not necessarily the best simile, but considering that this is the New York Post, this is an unwonted sentence that is to be commended.
  • To Adam Sternbergh: If you haven’t bothered to watch Mad Men, then why did you bother to write 1,100 words about why you don’t watch it? If you are being paid $1/word, why would you be such a lazy and worthless intellectual coprophilie and not investigate the show that you’re writing about? Why would you not go to the trouble of having your perceptions challenged? Or of offering an informed contrarian take to counter all the Mad Men mania? It’s only a few hours of your time to watch a few episodes. This is what makes good cultural journalism. No, instead, you’ve been paid $1,000 to tell us why you enjoy expressing your arrogant and uninformed idiocy. Why aren’t you out on the street holding a tin can begging for spare change and not getting a single dime? Why aren’t homeless people kicking you in the shins? Why isn’t a dependable team of mercenaries nailing hard pikes into your sorry excuse for a noggin while you’re trying to recover from a Sunday morning hangover? Why is this kind of insipid flummery being run in magazines when there are real journalists who are now out of work? Is that enough passionate advocacy for you? (To offer some perspective, 30,000 media jobs have been lost in 2008. But Adam Sternbergh inexplicably survives. Small wonder that Andrew Sullivan has concluded that it’s the end for newspapers.)

We Blame William Inge for This

The litblogging team had an early lead. But when our team fumbled an answer, PEN America took control of the literary trivia smackdown. We knew every answer that they did. But they had the opportunity to respond first. And in most cases, we didn’t know every answer that they didn’t know. You could sense some common polarity here. And it wasn’t too long before they jumped ahead of us by a good ten points.

It looked for a while that we wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of making a comeback. And then a bit of magic happened. We then took control of the questions, and inched our way to within striking distance. PEN America needed sixteen points to win. And we clawed our way up the mountain to a 15-13 shortfall. I urged Eric Rosenfield not to get too cocky about this, but the man was dripping boatloads of saliva. Had my hand not rested upon his right shoulder, he would have bolted out of his chair and performed like a spastic mascot before the PEN America team.

That’s when Levi Asher and I betrayed the litbloggers. The question was simple: What award-winning playwright wrote the script for the Marilyn Monroe film, The Misfits? Now I’ve seen the film and I knew the answer. It’s not a great film by any means. But somehow my brain misfired. I’m confident that our collective mistake had something to do with the spoons I brought. I played the spoons during every correct answer to ensure that there was a certain harmony in the air. Some pleasant syncopation that would get the audience on our side. Something that could turn this imposing smackdown into the living embodiment of a John G. Avildsen film.

But somehow Levi and I had blocked Arthur Miller’s name — the name we knew — from our noggins. By some mnemonic phenomenon, the two of us thought simultaneously of Bus Stop, a film adaptation that had indeed originated from a William Inge play (although George Axelrod wrote the screenplay).

“That’s Inge!” I cried.

“William Inge! Yeah!” Levi agreed. “Go for it.”

We remain convinced that PEN America, as amicable as they were, had placed some kind of hex upon our heads. Something to perplex us. Something that might cause us to declare more income on our tax returns.

Sarah Weinman, of course, knew the correct answer. But the two of us were too fast, too caught up in our enthusiasm, and the two words were uttered into the mike.

“Wrong,” said Tim Brown, who was clad in a spiffy tuxedo that could outclass Bill Cullen’s sartorial oeuvre.

We couldn’t backpedal from this mistake. Arthur Miller had once been the president of PEN America. We were fucked. And we had fucked ourselves. Making it a doublefuck, or possibly the kind of strange gymnastics that only great geographers like Artemidorus can identify.

And so PEN America, an organization that we proudly salute, smacked us down during the literary smackdown. But everyone played a very good game, offering strange answers when we didn’t know the correct ones, and we made some people smile.

The most important thing to take away from this friendly competition is that just about every literary person has the same interests and enthusiasms. The print and online people don’t have to drink from different fountains. And it’s too bad that the New York Review of Books wasn’t there to share the magic.

[UPDATE: WNYC has an audio report of the smackdown.]

The Best Translated Books of 2008

Chad Post has revealed the fiction longlist for translation over at Three Percent. The ten finalists will be announced on January 27th. The winners will be announced at Melville House HQ on February 19th. No word yet on whether there will be a multilingual presentation of either the finalists or the winners. And while Esperanto appears to have been sadly excluded from the initial languages, there are some fine offerings on the list.

Literary Smackdown This Sunday!

At last year’s Independent Small Press Book Fair, an imposing man posing in a tux (or perhaps not) took charge of a Literary Trivia Smackdown. The man was Tim Brown. This feral contest of wit and esoteric facts pitted A Public Space against The New York Review of Books. I attended this smackdown as a participant, entreating A Public Space to do better. I vowed to Mr. Brown and all the participants and all of the audience members and just about anybody who would listen that a group of litbloggers would be happy to challenge the winner to a new match. At long last, the great divide between print and online would come together in a battle of wills.

Well, the New York Review of Books won. And everything was set for this weekend. But at the eleventh hour, the New York Review of Books ran away, due to a combination of health problems involving one panelist’s father and fear. While all sympathies go out to this panelist’s father, one wonders whether the New York Review of Books abides by a helpful theatrical adage applicable to nearly all scenarios.

Thankfully, PEN America has stepped in at the last minute, stepping away from their human rights duties to contend with the strange specimens trawling and caterwauling in the litblogosphere. And the show will go on!

The litbloggers will be represented by Levi Asher, Eric Rosenfield, Sarah Weinman, and some assclown named Ed Champion. We may sing a few of our answers, or provide light verse to accompany our responses. I may bring a musical instrument or, at the very least, some spoons to play in between rounds if there is enough demand.

The PEN America team will be represented by David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems, and Lilly Sullivan. It is not yet known how serious this quartet plans to take this literary smackdown. But we have been informed by Mr. Brown that rules are now in place, and that apparently one can use a lifeline. Should our own team prove deficient in answering a question and require a lifeline, we will employ funny voices.

All of this silliness is going down at 4:00 PM this Sunday at the General Society Building located at 20 West 44th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenue). A considerable number of subway lines will get you there: the 1, 2, 3, A, C, E, R, and N.

Should you wish to cheer us on or mock us, the choice is happily deferred to you.


  • I completely believe that the Daily News managed to “steal” The Empire State Building. One of the things that has amazed me about New York is how a considerable amount of information is often asked of another, but it is not often examined. You could probably put “Interests: Pederasty” on your CV, and nobody would blink. (Thanks, Z.)
  • Jason Nelson has created some enjoyably deranged game art that takes the piss out of numerous big-name Internet sites. (via Joe)
  • Why all the UK and Australian stars? The answer is simple. Hollywood is having some difficulty finding masculine men. (via 2 Blowhards)
  • This Recording infiltrates the New York Young Republicans Club.
  • An airplane pilot argues au contrarire to Malcolm Gladwell.
  • Decorated trains in Japan. (via Quiddity)
  • Yes, I love this cover too.
  • The trailer for the Ghostbusters video game.
  • The New York Times site has initiated something called Times Extra. The feature purports to include links to non-New York Times stories with stories. I’ve tried out Times Extra and have found this to not be the case. Having additional links is beside the point. The New York Times doesn’t seem to understand that the links need to be embedded within the content in order to matter (and not just to their own material). I certainly have done this on just about any topic, because I figure somebody coming to my page might need to go somewhere else for additional information. This is Web Writing 101.
  • I like me some Arrowsmith, Babbitt, Dodsworth and Elmer Gantry, Mr. Junker. (Main Street and the later work, not so much.)
  • The largest Ren Faire is in Texas. (via Joanne)
  • RIP Dewey.
  • Emily the Strange: plagiarist.
  • Subject: sparse description. Okay, time to go.

Just a Poker Game

On the evening of December 4, 2008, I came to realize that the next day would be December 5, 2008. This date, in and of itself, did not puzzle me, although it bears some minor importance to me for personal reasons I won’t bore you with. I began to recognize that the day would drift into another a little more than two hours before the stroke of midnight. The recognition of this change came after a long day of work, in which I had fallen fast asleep after I had committed approximately eleven hours (perhaps more) of creative labor. It also came after I watched, for the first time, an episode of The Office on an actual television, as opposed to some illicit download with the advertisements stripped. Now I had not watched an episode of anything on television for quite some time, and there seemed to me more commercials than were absolutely necessary. Whether the strange amalgam of television comedy and commercials caused me to dwell upon the shifting day, I do not know. I only know that I was trying to zone out and that I was trying to do so in a way that was similar to how other people who worked nine-to-five jobs lived their lives.

A friend from another nation whom I had not seen in two and a half years had been staying with us, and he was a bit stunned by how I had changed. He decided to leave at the last moment for a bed and breakfast, but never offered me a specific reason or a goodbye. His wife had ordered him away. I have not yet met my friend’s wife, and I would like to. But I do know that he had come on a plane before her, stayed with us, and the two of us had imbibed quite a bit of Jim Beam. I knew what I was getting into, but I felt the crushing hangover from this crazed carousing the next morning and it nearly killed me, but I pressed on with my labor. It’s what I do. I had two interviews to conduct. This type of labor was foreign to my friend. He was shocked to see me up at 6:00 AM, and stood at attention when I made coffee and secured bagels to ensure that everyone would have some breakfast to get through the day. But he didn’t understand that I had to work, and that I was committed to my strange job, as low-paying (and often non-paying) as it is.

More than a decade ago, I thought my friend was helping me. He encouraged a shy kid to be true to himself. He was kind to me, and I tried to be as kind as I could right back. I got a late start, but I got a start nonetheless, and I am grateful to him. But now that I have become truer to who I am, I’m wondering if I was actually helping him. Did he see something in me, even in a prototypical form, that might have been a clue to his own identity? In all these years, has he been hiding behind something that is not what he is, but that, in a great twist of irony, helped me to become who I am? This unexpected understanding has made me feel treacherous in some way, but I know that it’s not my fault.

The late John Leonard once said that it takes a long time to grow new friends, but what he didn’t observe was that it sometimes takes a much longer time for older friends to come to terms with how they’ve changed, and that sometimes the divide can’t be crossed. We become lost and occupied in our baroque lives, reuniting with longtime pals after many years and regularly hanging out with the current friends within our circles. Sometimes, the gaps between years are negligible, and it’s easy to pick up where things left off. It’s like a pleasant game of poker in which all the hands have remained face-down on the table, and the players have had the decency not to look at the cards. Despite the thick film of dust that has settled upon the green felt, all the participants play the game through. But there are other times in which the moment has passed, and some don’t wish to marvel at the great changes in others. It’s just an old card game that can’t be reinvented, rethought, or improved upon. And the cards languish until they are reshuffled by other parties. But it’s still a great pity that the people before never finished their game. As old as poker is, it can still conclude any number of ways. And even if you lose the current hand, you might win on the next one. It’s only a pleasant card game. Nothing competitive. Just a good way of getting to know another person. Even the ones you thought you understood.

The Knopf Times Book Review

[UPDATE: On the evening of January 21, 2009, I asked Tanenhaus in person about the concerns satirized below, and I was able to get a few answers. I point readers of this post to the direction of my later post, “In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus,” where some questions are answered and Tanenhaus’s perspective is reported.]

It started with Sam Tanenhaus’s ridiculously uncritical review (and fawning video interview) with John Updike. It continued with Tanenhaus’s lips nearly licking Toni Morrison to a needlessly sensual premature death. But this afternoon, Sam Tanenhaus proved that The New York Times Book Review isn’t an independent organ, but rather a throbbing and dependent organ shoving itself restlessly into Knopf’s moist vagina. The New York Times Book Review selected its top ten books of 2008. Seven of the books were from Knopf. Of the remaining three selections, two were from other Random House imprints under Knopf’s watch. The only other publisher served was Farrar, Straus & Giruoux.

I think it goes without saying that someone is getting a cock sucked here.

My beef here is not with Random House, who has been consistently receptive and helpful to journalists of all stripes, but with Sam Tanenhaus’s embarrassingly tendentious selection process. These are malodorous results that reek as shamefully as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “decision-making process” during the Golden Globe Awards. It bears the skunkish whiff of junkets and favoritism. And it certainly doesn’t behoove any “paper of record” that expects us to take it seriously.

If this is a desperate ploy on Tanenhaus’s part to coax Random House to buy more advertising space in the New York Times Book Review, well, the joke here’s on Tanenhaus. Because why should Random House buy an advertisement in the NYTBR when they’re getting all this free publicity?

Look, I love Updike as much as the next guy. But let’s face the facts. By and large, the critics seemed to agree that The Widows of Eastwick didn’t quite cut the mustard. For Tanenhaus to write, in all seriousness, “At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page,” suggests very strongly that Tanenhaus assigned the wrong guy to review the book. It is one thing to marvel at Updike’s prose. But it’s quite another to fawn over it like an uncritical and sycophantic lapdog. For all the love and fanboyish accolades that have been granted to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Roberto Bolano’s 2666, I’ve never seen any of these plaudits spill over into Tanenhaus’s unmitigated hero worship.

How can any man live with himself knowing that he is such an unrepentant whore? Thank goodness Dwight Garner got out of this sausage factory when he did for the daily book reviewing gig. Compare Garner’s more adept review of Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For in today’s edition. It’s just as effusive as Tanenhaus’s Updike review, but at least Garner still has some respect: both for himself and the readership.

Time Out New York for Sale

The London Times is reporting that Time Out New York is now on the block. The backers of the magazine, which is fond of not paying its freelancers on a timely basis, are hoping that they can sell TONY for $40 million and recoup the 13-year investment. What’s even more interesting is that TONY is allegedly more profitable than the original Time Out magazine based in London. Time Out founder Tony Elliott, who owns one-third of the New York version and cannot afford to buy out his partners, is hoping that he can rustle up some cash. “If somebody offers $10 million, it won’t happen,” says Elliott in the Times article. But given that the Time Out Group Ltd. has shown a loss of £465,000 before taxes during the eleven months leading up to December 2006, perhaps Elliott might wish to be transparent about the current state of his company if he wishes to get more than $10 million. He might also want to start disseminating the measly checks that he still owes to his remaining freelancers to demonstrate his commitment to solvency.

Major Reorgnization from Random House; Applebaum and Rubin Out

In an email circulated to Random House colleagues, Random House announced a massive reorganization and the loss of veteran staffers, Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin. Here is the email that came from CEO Markus Dohle:

Dear colleagues and agents,

I would like to share with you the attached announcements I made today regarding a reorganization within Random House and the departure of two colleagues, Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin, with whom you’ve worked over the years.

I want to emphasize that within this new structure our publishing groups retain their autonomy and our publishing programs and efforts will continue unabated. We are committed to the values of a vibrant marketplace and to supporting the passions of our individual editors and publishers to pursue the projects they desire. For that reason we will continue the Random House policy of permitting imprints to bid against each other in auctions up to the moment that there are no out-of-house participants.

My intention is that Random House should always lead the market, even in difficult times, and we can do that only by forging stronger relationships with our authors, you, their agents, our retail customers and readers everywhere. These changes will make each individual imprint stronger and make us better able to accomplish that goal collectively.

Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts.



As part of the reorganization, Knopf will be absorbing both Doubleday and Nan A. Atlese, with this new amalgam headed by Knopf’s Sonny Mehta, while Crown, under the supervision of President and Publisher Jenny Frost, is taking Broadway, Doubleday Business, Doubleday Religion and Waterbrook Mountain. These details were announced in the attached PDFs.

Dohle insists in the PDF, “I want to stress the fact that all the imprints of Random House will retain their distinct editorial identities. These imprints and all of you who support them are the creative core of our business and essential to our success.” But with the distinct identities of Applebaum and Rubin now out of the picture, it remains to be seen whether or not these new clusters will remain as distinct as their previous incarnations.

The Observer‘s Leon Nefakh also reports, “The time bomb that was Random House for the past five months has finally exploded.”


  • The New Yorker profiles Naomi Klein and, in so doing, reveals many of the substantial problems now facing the Left. If the Left is to move forward, it must do so with hope and humility. It is all too easy to preach to the converted and to assume that one’s conclusions are final, particularly when you insist upon steeling yourself up with overwhelming rhetoric. The more challenging and fruitful position is to attempt to understand the apparent “opposition” and communicate through a framework in which lively but civil disagreement can be carried out that benefits all parties. Samantha Power, who is leagues smarter than Klein, understands this vital element of diplomacy. And it’s a pity that Chasing the Flame, Power’s more mature and quite intriguing biography of Sergio Vieria de Mello, has been overlooked for some of the more juvenile “arguments” that pollute The Shock Doctrine. Vieira de Mello was one of the few UN diplomats to get through to the likes of the Khmer Rouge and George W. Bush, and he managed to do this without abandoning his dignity. Power’s volume is not so much the portrait of an individual, as it is a well-researched and subtle guide for how one individual who came from a Marxist upbringing was able to communicate to unsavory individuals and still capable of fulfilling the UN Charter, while powerful governments attempted to bully the UN into complaisance. Let us hope that with Power now returning to the Obama team — ironically, to a State Department that will be overseen by Hillary Clinton — we will see these fundamentals applied to the new administration. Let us also hope that Klein eventually learns how to inhabit the regions outside her own head.
  • Colson Whitehead has made a video. While I recognize the base exigencies of marketing, I must nevertheless raise a cautious eyebrow over Whitehead dismissing Holden Caulfield while likewise using the dreaded phrase “child of the ’80s.” (I likewise fit the temporal and existential requirements, but I would never dare deploy these four words on these pages.) I can accept Junot Diaz writing about Grand Theft Auto (and indeed hope for more of this), but I simply cannot accept a writer of Whitehead’s caliber resorting all too easily to this LiveJournal vernacular. I do, however, recognize this as one of those time-honored promotional videos — perhaps something to be enjoyed with Bas Rutten. I have inured myself to these promotional videos, realizing that they almost never represent the novels they are promoting. But like the Rake, I eagerly anticipate this next novel, hoping that Sag Harbor represents a return to form.
  • The Best Book Covers of 2008.
  • CNN is now pitching a cheaper wire service to newspapers. With the Associated Press planning on cutting 10% of its jobs next year, it would appear that television may very well be taking over the journalism business that has frequently been the domain of newspapers. Related to all this is Roger Ebert’s condemnation of the AP imposing a 500-word limit on reviews, interviews, and news stories, and Bill Wyman’s response on what the future critical landscape looks like. (First link via Books Inq., fourth link via mathitak (Twitter).)
  • The Millions hosts its annual Year in Reading, with mostly excellent contributors represented thus far.
  • Holt Uncensored has also returned, with a condemnation of the National Book Awards’s needless provincialism and a very good idea that authors should fight for.
  • I only link to the ineffable dumbass as a public service. Yes, she’s still out there, ready to be reactivated when Ann Coulter can’t open her mouth. Yes, she’s still contributing drivel to The Atlantic. But then what can you expect from a once thoughtful magazine that desperately includes Britney Spears on its cover to attract readers. (via Maud)
  • Does copyright even matter anymore? (via Moby Lives)

Virginia Heffernan: The Sarah Palin of Journalism

The review came over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but the 757 words that Virginia Heffernan devoted to savaging Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates on Sunday have little to do with Vowell’s book. Heffernan is the kind of reviewer that Coleridge accurately identified as failed talent. The embittered dunce who gave up her punch and passion eons ago, and who now approaches the craft of reviewing like a helper monkey trained to take a coat at a snap, only to deposit this winter wear into a pile of her own excrement. It is a predictable exercise that just about any marsupial with a cluster of barely functioning brain cells can accomplish. You could employ a human resources manger of average intelligence (and with some experience in professionally humiliating people for pedantic reasons) to write a review like this. Even Dale Peck understood this years ago when he gave up his hatchet to write unapologetically commercial fiction. But since the act requires little in the way of cognitive ability, one wonders why Heffernan isn’t employed in a position that better suits her skill set. Perhaps pumping gas in the New Jersey cold or putting together bankers boxes for minimum wage in a damp basement.

Heffernan’s review fails on just about every level. It isn’t particularly informative for a reader hoping to get a sense of who Vowell is or what this new book is about. It represents a predictable scenario in which the New York Times Book Review has opted to wear its ugly internal politics on its sleeve, with Heffernan unable to stretch past her own prejudices against the quirky and the interesting.

And isn’t it rather intriguing that one-liners and “blogger tics” serve as “weak liquors” for this digital culture columnist when Heffernan’s review (and her work as a whole) has employed the same? Is Heffernan even remotely curious about her beat? Or is she waiting for the joys to kick in upon the onset of menopause? One delves into the Heffernan oeuvre finding bitter and flavorless canapes instead of tasty tapas prepared with care and excitement. Heffernan cannot get her location details right. She is more interested in the girls who cling to Virgil Griffith’s arms than Griffith’s geeky achievements. Most egregiously, she talks down to her readers as if they are numbskulls. (“Search ‘Unforgivable’ on YouTube or go to Definitely not safe for work,” reads one of her smug asides.) Here is the village idiot who, like Sarah Palin, believes herself to be an indispensable gatekeeper. She has foolishly equated the YouTube success of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech with length and political tech savvy rather than the substance of Obama’s convictions — writing yet again with disdain against those who use the Internet. Because in the Heffernan worldview, people who use the Internet can’t possibly be interested in long-form exercises. Indeed, Heffernan is so out-of-touch that she could not even account for the rise and ubiquity of wi-fi networks in an article on cybercafes. And all of these disgracefully written and uninformed articles were written for the Times in just the past month.

Heffernan is an aging debutante who will never quite understand why others are drinking the last pre-Wet Planet cans of Jolt Cola, why geeks code or create open source software for others, or why other techheads plunder through buckets of abandoned components to build new machines. But she’ll still be insistently tapping your shoulder to ask you what HKEY_CURRENT_USER is all about, even when you’ve explained the REGEDIT niceties to her a thousand times. This is a stubborn dunderhead who cannot stick to her own hoary and boring cliques, and who does not realize just how much of a laughing stock she is in New York. She believes that the regular newspaper reader is an idiot. And anybody, like Sarah Vowell, who does get through to the public in a semi-geeky or slightly idiosyncratic way must be nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. (At least that’s the vernacular the geeks are using. But what Jim Cameron film did that come from again? Oh noes! My people skills and Google prowess aren’t quite up to snuff!)

Now Heffernan has besmirched a book review section that should matter, but that continues to remain mostly a disgrace — in large part because the editors continue to assign creative typists like Heffernan to write drivel to fill up its pages. Heffernan lacks the decency and the acumen to inform us about what the book is trying to say. Here is a reviewer who cannot be professional enough to pay attention. Heffernan fundamentally misunderstands that Vowell’s dips into the past aren’t really about “enlighten[ing] slacker Gen-Xers with a remedial history of our nation,” but about how one particular voice approaches this subject. Nobody expects to be entirely enlightened when reading Sarah Vowell. But a reader is often entertained. And is that not one of the basic functions of books? To transmit one person’s ideas to a reader.

Of course, for Heffernan, it isn’t about the book. It’s about Vowell’s vocal appearance in The Incredibles. It’s about Vowell’s work with This American Life. It’s about how other people like and enjoy Vowell, goddammit. Why don’t they like and enjoy Heffernan? It’s about prohibiting how another person’s perspective is committed to print. We can’t have references to Happy Days. We can’t have material that is written to be performed. (Never mind that, more often than not, the best prose is often that which can be spoken aloud.)

Should it really matter that Vowell is discovering John Winthrop and Roger Williams for the first time? (Or pretending to with her schtick?) Is Heffernan so sheltered a human being that she does not recognize that, because of American educational inadequacies, many people in America do not know who Winthrop and Williams are? Is she so stupid that she cannot recognize that Vowell is writing for a popular audience?

Evidently she is. If Heffernan so loathed and misunderstood Vowell, she should not have been assigned this review. The biggest clue that Heffernan, in all likelihood, lacks even the rudimentary joy to enjoy so much as a carousel or a roller coaster is this sentence: “She sounds as if she’s enjoying herself.” Well, I sure as hell hope that Vowell is enjoying herself. Or any author for that matter. Could Heffernan be seriously suggesting that a dip into history should not be enjoyable? To pillory Vowell for not being an academic is to miss the point of what Vowell and similar commentators are all about. To attack Vowell for the people she cites in the acknowledgments section rather than specific examples from the text is the act of an amateurish cunctator.

When one is dealing with an eccentric writer, even an apparent middlebrow one, it is sometimes necessary to consider the writer’s eccentricities. What we do know is this: Vowell has not contributed to the New York Times Book Review since February 2005. It remains unknown if Vowell has ever declined an assignment under the Sam Tanenhaus regime. But if she has declined, she has chosen wisely. We can indeed afford to lose this sinking ship so long as the fools who write for it continue to misunderstand the most rudimentary elements of reading and reviewing, while alienating the fun and adept people who remain quite capable.