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May 15, 2006


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Michael M.

I skipped this Roth. Any compelling reason for me to have read it?

Absolutely. American Pastoral is the strongest of his books; like an American Buddenbrooks, but better. In my humble opinion, it's the only one that really deserves to be on the list.

One book that would never make a list like this (too sentimental) but that I think deserves a spot is Kent Haruf's Plainsong. Goddamn is that a fine book. It's like the antidote to obscurantist modernism.

And for best short fiction, I'd go with Ken Kalfus and Thirst.

Doug M.

I'm mildly dismayed to see how much of this list I've missed completely. Of 27, I've read three: _Winter's Tale_, _Confederacy of Dunces_, and _Mating_. Started both _Rabbit_ and _The Things They Carried_, but I don't think that counts.

Well, let's see. _Confederacy_ is a grand comic romp with some interestingly darker undertones and I thoroughly recommend it, but if it's in the top 10 list of the best books of the last 25 years, then we have a bit of a problem.

_Winter's Tale_, I agree with Carlos. Mainstream-y fantasy of the sort that critics love and the rest of us find somewhat underwhelming. Read it in 1990. I remember the date because I was studying for the bar exam and I could only read something like three books in six weeks. And that was so /painful/.

But I have mostly forgotten it. There were some gemlike minor characters that have stayed with me -- Owen Lemur the editor, and the philolomaniac mom -- but that's about it.

It wasn't *bad* at all; but as literature it was no better than workable middlebrow stuff, while as fantasy, it was maybe as good as medium-good Tim Powers. At best. I wonder if the "love letter to New York City" aspect pushed it onto the list?

_Mating_ is very fine. Recommended. Note that the narrator is very sharp, but not at all objective. The author does one of the best dances between keeping the narrative voice intact
and revealing what the reader needs to know that I've seen in a while.

Two books I would have expected to make at least an appearance: _The Corrections_ by Jonathan Franzen, and something -- probably _Possession_ -- by A.S. Byatt.

_Corrections_ isn't a great and enduring masterpiece -- among other things, it's very much a mid-'90s period piece -- but it's a lot of fun, and both broad and deep.

Oh: Carlos, stop by the library and snag a copy of Franzen's _How to Be Alone_, which is a collection of his short pieces. Very uneven, but there are a couple in there that will reward your time.

Byatt seems to be widely loathed by authors and critics, for reasons that are not clear to me. I wouldn't call _Possession_ a book for the ages either, but I'd take it over _Winter's Tale_ or the first Rabbit book in a flash.

Oh, wait a moment. [googles] Ah ha, she's a Brit. Okay.

Noodling a bit, I find I *do* seem to have read a lot of the Pulitzer winners: _Empire Falls_, _Middlesex_, _The Shipping News_, _The Strange Adventures of Kavalier and Clay_. Hmm, and Booker Prize winners too: _Life of Pi_, _Sacred Hunger_, _Possession_, _Remains of the Day_.

Not sure of the significance here. Upper-middlebrow as opposed to highbrow? I *own* a copy of _Infinite Jest_; does that count?

I could blame it on children and work but, you know, I had many opportunities to read Don DeLillo when I was single and footloose. I went off and played Civilization II instead, or chatted up tourist girls, or reread Jack Vance or Poul Anderson, or ran the Hash. Go figure.

Oh, and: "Best work of American fiction". Not best /book/? Because there's some sequential art stuff that would be IMO at least in contention.

(Yeah, I know. Middlebrow and a nerd too.)

Doug M.


Michael M., like an American Buddenbrooks, but better is a very strong recommendation indeed.

Doug, I'm gonna throw a copy of Beloved and Blood Meridian in the next box.

A.S. Byatt started off as a critic herself -- Iris Murdoch's novels -- and recently annoyed a lot of people with her disdain of Harry Potter (but she champions Pratchett). She's also Margaret Drabble's sister (and rival). Don't know how you got the American vibe from Possession, considering how her ear became noticeably more stannous with her American characters.

Of course John Crowley's Little, Big should occupy the slot of Winter's Tale, no special pleading required.

And the situation is worse than you think. A Confederacy of Dunces was written in the early sixties, about the same time as Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. (Have you read? I forget.)


/The Things They Carried/, Doug, is, well, annoying. I've read it twice now. Once for a high school English class called "Writing and Composition" it was cool then. It was less cool and interesting when I read it again last semester for "War, Technology, and Society" mostly because, well, what was good wasn't original, and what was original wasn't good.

It fit broadly into the American genre of Vietnam writing, combined with a particularly annoying pastiche to /Heart of Darkness/ and that sort of "the landscape opposes the European colonizer" trope; in particular, I'm thinking "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong." It got so caught up in its gestures to genre that it's no so much its own book as a potpurri of American views on Vietnam and sixties, Saidist anti-colonialism. It's much of a muchiness, not much of it good.

This can be said of the rest of his works, which are middling thrillers and that sort of thing focused on Vietnam without gaining a particularly unique voice.

That critique reminds me of Pat Conroy; when everyone I knew knew that I wanted to be a writer, they gave me his books. Mostly, they're just bad; they're many, many self-tuckerizations that individually aren't as good as the whole is, tending to melodrama over actual goodness. Now, "My Losing Season" which proclaims itself to be Conroy's autobiography, is /good./ Not as good as, say, /The Color Purple/ but is good precisely because the rest of his books are bad. It combines several reccurant strands of his tuckerization into one whole--abusive father, dysfunctional family, abusive college and coach--that make it particularly powerful. It's a good view of what it is to be poor, Southern, and in a military family in mid-century America. The father and the coach come across as so horrible that their arrival on page would make me physically cringe.

3/4 of the book is excellent, and then it gets all gooey with misty-eyed middle age nostalgia for being young and athletic.

If we were to excise a single chapter, I think "New Orleans" might stand on its own as an excellent coming-of-age story. The problem with using "My Losing Season" however, is that it claims itself to be an autobiography. I'm not entirely inclined to trust its veracity, and thus, treat it as semi-fiction. Anyway, it's in the box of stuff coming your way, Doug.

I agree that /American Pastoral/ is the best Roth on offer and is quite good on its own. /Horses/ still, not so good, and neither is /Jesus' Son/

I'm of course rather dismayed that Michael Faber is Belgian, otherwise /The Crimson Petal and the White/ would be up there.

I think /Kavalier and Klay/ is absolutely in the running, for the superheroes, the homosexuality, and the overall amazing quality of the peice. The Golem of Prague and Salvadore Dali in one book...

If we must have a Vietnam book, and I suppose we must, I'd suggest /They Marched into Sunlight/ by
David Maraniss. It's much more clear-eyed in its work, and so much better than /The Things They Carried/ but that could just be a generational thing.

Anyway, that's my two dirhams. Now, back to the circus.

Noel Maurer

"They Marched Into Sunlight" is an excellent book. I've read several of the books on Carlos's list, including "The Things They Carried," and will categorically say that in my opinion TMIS is a far better read than any of them.

Except for one thing. "They Marched Into Sunlight" isn't fiction.

Either I lack the gene for literary appreciation, or the last quarter century has simply produced much better novelistic nonfiction than any previous period, against which our fiction pales in comparison.

Or both. Comments?


while beloved sits around smoking cigarettes and collecting fan mail, song of solomon is out in the yard, doing pushups, and can kick the former's flabby ass all around the laundry. I'm just saying. I mean, beloved won the nobel prize because scans feel bad about the knee-groes in america. not to put to fine a point on it. ahem.

hardly The Best, but I don't read much fiction anyhow, because it's just pretend. That said: lorrie moore's birds of america; jane hamilton's the book of ruth; Old Dead Guy's leaving las vegas; and (much as it might pain you though I think I first read your copy) jitterbug perfume. I recently realized that jitterbug perfume is second on my desert-island book list, along with, you know, that book about cholera, but had I told you that I had a revelation after I wasted weeks reading solitude finally? I think my list has to be re-worked.

hey! I think both cathedral and what we talk about when we talk about love are better carver collections, the former is especially tight, the latter shows off his range, such as it was. but, you know. he is the star pupil of my favorite guy evah. that explaining why I have no time for fiction, with the high standards and the whatnot! hey, my little's got a cut finger! we all love you here! xoxoxxx


sorry, like life, not birds of america. she repeats "community life" in some variation in each, which always confuses me and, for reasons obvious to you, is my favorite story of hers ever. many tiny kisses!!


LL, I have a theory about that: Morrison set a lot of Song of Solomon in the black ghetto of a large city in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Scans read that, and went,

"Jag frstr inte. Is this magic realism? I will call cousin Ole in Escanaba. He will know. ... Ja, Ole? I have two questions I wish to ask you. Tell me, what is the name of the large city on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? And what, approximately, is its Negro population? ... There is no large city on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? And there are no Negroes in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? At all? Three or four? We have far more than that in Stockholm! But what about Detroit? I have seen them on the television. No? O."

Moral of the story: the Upper Peninsula is not Ohio, and not knowing this could delay your Nobel Prize significantly.

Bernard Guerrero

"I will call cousin Ole in Escanaba. He will know. ... Ja, Ole? I have two questions I wish to ask you. Tell me, what is the name of the large city on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? And what, approximately, is its Negro population?"

Heh. Double heh. And I bet she didn't even have them hunt. I'll have to ask Jen what she thinks, she used to be a big Morrison fan.


Only a good talk about books could bring me out of the woodwork... Our current fiction does hold my interest considerably less than nonfiction (this is especially true in the case of DeLillo's White Noise--rereading a beloved book by someone else would have been a better use of my time). Unfortunately, many of my favorite authors in the last 25 (ok, maybe thirty) years are not American and so do not count--Rushdie comes to mind.


o, Carlos. my angel. you are funny even in the intarweb and when I have no idea what it means. ja foster whoski?? I only have stock phrases in polish, you know.

the fact is we've already discussed that I think that's an editing error, because the only thing that makes her setting the UP and not where it obviously is, which is to say the eastern coast of michigan, is that it says "lake superior" in the first sentence. even as the rest of the geography of place unfolds to be right down the way from PA, etc, etc, etc, etc, the western shore of lake erie.

in fact, if I could just go on, the thing is that I was confused when you first objected to it in the winter, because in my head I had just supplanted superior with what was obviously erie. so, I couldn't figure out why it was that you (genius. midwesterner.) thought that it was not possible (i.e. fictitious) for an insane person to think they could fly across that little smitchet along I-275 down to sandusky-ish, which really, ok, where it is american down there, is a bay, and not a great lake at all, but you have to cut a break somewhere. I mean, I have to do it all the time with movies set in chicago that do not respect the anomalous excellence of it as a place! hello? hog butcher for the world! but I accept it when they, yk, show it as a happening place, a colder nyc! I close my eyes and say ok! I also said ok to 12 years of Dennis Franz and his hometown long As being the standard for a nyc detective's tenor! yes, I did!! so, you can suck up 1. an editing mistake, probably made by some jr assistant at harcourt or penguin or whatever and 2. the conflation of maumee bay with lake erie.

ok! I am frowning! and have for you one sulky foot stamp!! fake fist-shaking at the sky!!


LL, I know, I know, she meant Lake Erie. Morrison is always precise in her observations, and they all point to that area, except for the name of the lake. But I'd love to see the manuscript. I'd also love to read Morrison's Youper novel.

(You know they mocked Sipowicz's accent mercilessly down at the precinct in NYPD Blue. Why do you think he was so angry all the time? It wasn't the skells.)

Bernard, actually they do hunt in Song of Solomon. Don't let my cattiness dissuade you. It's a very good book.

Noel, I will guess it's easier to write a history or biography or memoir with big novel themes than it is to write a good big thematically coherent novel. More of the interpretive work has already been done.

(Also, as you and Luke may have noticed, Maraniss is an excellent historian of Wisconsin. Almost casually so.)

Renee, welcome! I wonder about the US/UK talent imbalance too. Here's a hypothesis: it's not a talent imbalnce, but a sorting imbalance. British literary culture might simply be faster at picking out and promoting the good books it produces.

Noel Maurer

I completely agree with your analysis of why nonfiction is easier, Carlos. A question remains, however: why so much good nonfiction in recent years? Have the conventions about memoirs, journalism, and history changed, or am I suffering from sample selection bias?

If the latter, recommendations would be appreciated.


I don't suppose there's much support for Wolfe's _Bonfire of the Vanities_ ?


I don't know why, but yeah, tastes have shifted.

(This sort of publishing data is hard to come by! And asking about it triggers angry defensive reactions. Contrast the automobile industry. I don't even have a hypothesis for the difference.)

la loca

Carlos, thank you for not making me pull a knife on you. a million kisses.

Noel, I will engage the cheeky-cheeky of cross-talk since I know you to be an actual person and vice versa, so. one of the things that can get thrown out there, I think, is the rising population of trained journalists, people who were (ostensibly) taught how to write. if you think back to 30 years ago, newswriting was a workingman's trade and while there were stars -- Royko, Sandburg, do we count White and Hemingway? why not, throw them in -- the world wasn't crawling with them. and while certainly there is a lot of sucky journalism in the world and an awful lot of sucky nonfiction, the fact is that every excellent piece of nonfiction I have read in the last ten years has been written by someone who has been in their workadays featured mightily in the ny'er or the economist, etc, that type thing.

I don't have time to give weight to the whole idea, but now it's out there. I tend to work in broad strokes, anyhow.

were you asking for recommendations for bad nonfiction? or better, more finely-crafted fiction? anyhow. ok! mil disculpas!

Bernard Guerrero

"Contrast the automobile industry. I don't even have a hypothesis for the difference."

Size of market, degree of commitment required by average purchase and degree of fragmentation?

-Shifts in tastes as far as cars should be tougher to hide. You can fake your taste in books by carrying a copy of "The Life of Pi" with you onto the subway, even if you never read the damned thing, but few are going plunk down for a Navigator unless they're actually going to drive one. Also, I'm willing to bet that more people drive than read highbrow lit. Given that the market participants in both industries who blow predicting the latest cycle have an incentive to hide it, the publishers actually have a better chance of getting away with it.

-Probably explains some of the defensiveness, too. If you did blow the latest fashion cycle in publishing, you're probably close to the edge. Companies like GM can blow it for decades on end before it starts to show. :^)


Sorry to post so late, but a question:
have you ever read "A Reader's Manifesto"
by B.R. Myers? (Either the original magazine
article or the book version.)Myers is a very
jaded writer who detests almost all current
trends in literature, including most of the
winners and judges of the contest. I haven't
read enough recent US fiction to judge if he's
got a point, but damn, he's funny.


Um. Tzin, as far as I know, of the books on this list he only really hates the later Cormac McCarthy ones and Don DeLillo. Annie Proulx isn't on the list, and neither is Paul Auster, nor is Rick Moody (and why would he be?). I don't know whether Myers would find Roth to be an acceptable substitute for Bellow, but I suspect he might.

As for Myers' perception of other people's tastes, he claims "many of the adults who enjoy Harry Potter would be even happier with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, if they only knew about it." Uh-huh.

Noel Maurer

Srta. Loca,

Hello! Your explanations make sense on the non-fiction tip, and the observations that back them up jibe with mine. Now that I think about it.

I'm looking for recommendations for "better, more finely-crafted fiction." I can't say that I'll take to it, but you can't know till you try.


In response to Carlos, Rick Moody was one of the judges who compiled the list (and so, IIRC, were most of the writers on Myers' hit list).

Although about his judgement of other people's favorites, yeah, it is strange.

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