Bestsellers Tell What Possesses Us – Telegraph Avenue

This past fall and early winter there was a perfect storm of top authors publishing new books. I wanted to read a handful of them to see what possesses some of our best creative minds and our popular culture. I wanted to break out of old habits and venture to new places I wouldn’t normally find on my own.

I didn’t get to as many books as I’d planned, but I did read:

  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle
  • This Is How You Lose Her; and a previously published book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Most difficult of all was acclimating to the world of Telegraph Avenue. I almost gave up on it. I couldn’t keep Chabon’s characters straight, I was clueless about the endless blaxploitation and 1970s cultural allusions, even though that was my coming-of-age time, and I sometimes struggled with the rich, complex (and masterful) prose. The great librarian Nancy Pearl has a Rule of 50: Stop reading after 50 pages if you don’t like the book, and if you’re over 50 you can subtract your age from 100 and stop there. So I was well within my rights to stop before 50 pages, but I kept going with Telegraph Avenue, and it was worth it.

Telegraph Avenue book coverTo me, Telegraph Avenue and Junot Diaz’s books are similar in that I entered completely unfamiliar hearts, minds, and worlds. I’m unlikely to stop by a used record store in Oakland, California any time soon, or meet the kinds of characters (and I mean that in more than one sense of the word) who might hang out there.  In Telegraph Avenue, Archy (who is black) and Nat (who is white) are best friends, vinyl record shop business partners, and musicians struggling to make a living in a neighborhood that’s seen better days.

For one reason or another – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, changing times – the characters in Telegraph Avenue are outsiders or has-beens or both: former blaxploitation and martial arts stars, connoiseurs of soul and jazz and long-forgotten record albums, fine musicians in their own right. Many are regulars at Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, which reminded me of the bar in the TV show “Cheers.” I grew to like and care about these characters in large part because of their passion for music and devotion to their art. My godfather was a jazz pianist, and I dated a jazz musician. I remember how both lived and breathed jazz, in the same way Archy, Nat, and others do in Telegraph Avenue. Music shaped their lives, and when they were playing a gig, they had an aura of dignity and charisma others envied.

Yet, both my godfather and the musician I dated played the kind of jazz that was seen by many as antiquated in the 1960s and 70s when music was reinventing itself. There is the same sense of this passing away of art forms in Telegraph Avenue, and of people being rushed headlong into the future while trying to preserve what shouldn’t be lost.

If you’ve read Telegraph Avenue, what did you think? Please comment!

I’d like to give equal time to new, lesser known, and independent authors, so I plan in the coming months to read a sampling of fiction by some of these writers. If you have a book to suggest please do in the comments.

Reading Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverYou ask yourself why you’re reading This Is How You Lose Her, the short story collection by Junot Diaz. How could you possibly relate to Yunior, the irreverent, hard-drinking Dominican-born narrator and serial cheater of the most extreme sort?

You write this post in second person point of view, as Diaz does in his short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” just to try it on for size.

You read that Yunior cheated on the love of his life with no less than 50 women over six years. And then she found out.

Diaz writes, “You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together.”

Yunior’s ex-fiancee assembles all the damning evidence (emails, photos, etc.) in an album (the Doomsday Book) and sends it to Yunior with a note: For your next book.

You think: This is one funny writer.

The writing is so musical and overflowing with Spanish, maybe you can brush up on the language: blanquita, moreno, salcedeña, sucio, cuero. Then you realize some of the words are made up, and others are words you’re not likely to use any time soon.

Yunior’s suffering seems to know no bounds, as if he’s channeling all the deprivation of his poor, difficult, immigrant life  (which the other stories in this collection portray) into mourning his lost love.

Yunior becomes a professor of fiction in Boston. Having grown up in Santo Domingo and New York City, he has a hard time in New England: “White people pull up at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers….Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID.”

Yunior visits the Dominican Republic with his friend, Eric, to see Eric’s presumed love child; the child and mother live in the Nadalands, where Yunior’s father was born and where his ex-fiancee is from. Mud, shanties, no running water or electricity, raw sewage.

You remember the volunteer work your family did in Nicaragua – you’ve only seen that kind of poverty once and, after a few days, you could return to your comfortable home in America.

You know Diaz’s  fiction is partly autobiographical and you wonder which parts are true, which are made up. You find the second person point of view can be confusing: Does the “you” refer to Yunior, or to the author himself? Sometimes you think the “you” refers to you, the reader, because by now you’ve become so invested in Yunior you find yourself beginning to understand and identify with him.

There is that moment of self-reckoning when Yunior has to face what he has done. You agree with Yunior’s assessment of the half-life of love.

You think: this blurring of boundaries between author, narrator, reader – maybe that’s the point.

If you’ve read this book, please comment!

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York: 2012.

First sentences, Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverSelected first sentences, from short stories in This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz:

“I’m not a bad guy.”

“Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. This is how all these stories begin.”

“You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.”

“Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancee, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.”)

“Those last months.”

“Years later you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?”

As fate would have it, one day in April when I went to Joe Bean (whose website has great photos, including one by A. Hallinan) to meet my son and have a cup of incredible coffee, I was given a free book, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in celebration of World Book Night.

I haven’t read this Pulitzer Prize winning book yet, so I thought I would now, right along with This Is How You Lose Her.  Both books feature the narrator, Yunior, who, according to NPR reviewer Carmen Gimenez Smith, “might someday rank with Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry Angstrom as an enduring American literary protagonist.”

While we’re getting to know this next great American literary protagonist, whose native land is the Dominican Republic, I’ll be posting from Argentina, where I’ll also be rereading Imagining Argentina, visiting a larger-than-life bookstore, and….well, we’ll see.

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York, 2012.

Books at my door

Four fall books 2012 I love it when I find new books waiting on my doorstep.

Great books coming this fall

Been too long away from the blog. Visiting family, and it’s the busiest time of year at the library, where I’ve had the privilege of working with eleven first-year medical students. I’ll be their personal librarian for the next four years, a role we librarians are inventing and making our own as we go along.

When it comes to Books Can Save A Life, I often wonder who might stop by and whether I can make their visit personal and meaningful, especially considering most of my readers are anonymous.

One thing I know, I have to feel passionate or intensely curious about the books, writers, and topics I feature here.

You may be inspired to read some of the books or authors you find on Books Can Save A Life but, ultimately, I hope Books gives you a moment of pleasure, speaks to some aspect of your own life, stirs up memories of past good reads, or inspires you to try a new path in your personal reading.

After visiting my favorite book spots on the Internet, I was energized to find that this fall will bring a perfect storm of new fiction and nonfiction by some of our best writers. Everyone in the book world is excited about the upcoming publishing season.

Some of my favorite authors will publish new books, and others have been on my to-read list for a while. This fall and winter I want to feature some of them on Books Can Save A Life. Let’s immerse ourselves in the spirit and mood of our time. What are our obsessions, passions, predictions, hopes, fears, delusions and delights? How are we, personally, caught up in all of it?

Let’s find out.

Tops on my list are Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan.

I loved Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book, Flight Behavior, is right up my alley, with a larger-than-life plot about a farmer’s wife caught up in a biological disaster that draws worldwide attention and fuels the controversy over climate change.

Sweet Tooth book coverI’ve read McEwan’s Saturday twice (someday I’ll tell you why that book is so special to me), and I’m looking forward to his Sweet Tooth.  It’s about a Cold War spy who falls in love with the novelist she’s supposed to be manipulating. One reviewer calls it a complex “Russian doll of a novel” that’s really about readers, reading, how we respond to fiction, and what we want from it.

Mark Helprin will have a new book out, too, In Sunlight and In Shadow. Have any of you read Winter’s Tale? Among other things, it’s a love letter to New York City of the early 1900s (and of the future.) I read it when I was saying goodbye to New York and a particular time in my life. Helprin’s newest book takes place in post World War II New York and is, I think, a similarly fabulous and grand tale.

I’m curious about J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, but I may wait for the reviews to make the commitment.

Some authors publishing this fall I’ll be meeting for the first time:

San Miguel, by T. C. Boyle (two families on an island off the coast of California)

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon (two families in Oakland, California – doesn’t that sound just like Boyle’s book?)

This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz (all kinds of love)

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, by D. T. Max (a biography of David Foster Wallace)

But first, I promised you Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor in August. Better late than never, it’s a book I can’t pass up that will be front and center in my next post.

Also coming up: two book stories to share with you from a couple of my readers, and a trip to Buenos Aires in October, where I’ll be re-reading Imagining Argentina and writing about my adventures.

What are you reading? Are there any forthcoming books you plan to buy the minute they’re available?

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