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  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2018/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: challenging novels, , lydia davis, read them and weep   

    Flex Your Reading Muscles with These 10 Anti-Novels 

    The novel isn’t a fixed concept. From its earliest incarnations to the modern day, writers have been playing with the fundamentals of the form, pushing boundaries and changing rules as they go. Sometimes these efforts are subtle, but sometimes they’re drastic, resulting in final works I like to call “anti-novels.” Anti-novels rewrite the rules of the novel so aggressively, they become something new. Anti-novels can be intimidating, because they exist outside the lines of what we’re used to, yet over time, they often move into the novel category as literary norms expand to include their innovations, so the effort required to read them is worth it.

    These 10 anti-novels will lead you into new worlds of reading.

    theMystery.doc, by Matthew McIntosh
    It took McIntosh nearly a decade to write theMystery.doc, and it’s clear why: the book abandons traditional structures to tell the story of a writer who wakes up with no memory and a single, mysterious file on his laptop (the titular text file). Told in a delirious collage of straightforward prose, text and chat transcripts, photos, illustrations, emails, and other elements, there isn’t a single straightforward narrative through line in the whole massive tome (it’s more than 1,600 pages long). If you stick with it, though, the story begins to cling to you like barnacles, forming layer by layer as you pick up details, notice hints, and make connections to things you glimpsed hundreds of pages earlier. The final effect is supremely satisfying.

    Dodge Rose, by Jack Cox
    The earlier sections of Cox’s book lull you into thinking it’s going to be a simple story about a young woman who travels to Sydney to claim the dilapidated house of her deceased aunt, only to discover that her aunt was actually impoverished and desperate. When the books switches to an extended flashback from Aunt Rose’s point of view, however, it veers firmly into anti-novel territory: Rose’s illiterate, unstructured, dream-like narrative of her life is as unreliable as it is impenetrable. Interspersed throughout both sections are lengthy factual recitations of inheritance law, tax rates, and price lists that only seem unnecessary until you give up and absorb them—and discover razor-sharp lines of prose that jump out and startle.

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne
    Often considered the original anti-novel, it’s not only always worth your while to read Tristram Shandy, it’s also an anti-novel that remains startling despite the passage of time and the normalizing of many of the literary tricks it innovated. Supposedly an autobiography of the title character, the most obvious subversion of the form is the fact that over the course of nine volumes, Shandy barely gets to his childhood. The rest of the book is taken up by increasingly divergent tangents as Shandy’s loquacious and unreliable narration follows whatever train of thought he likes—but there’s a shadowy structure to the ramble that becomes apparent with thought (and rereading).

    Remainder, by Tom McCarthy
    This is actually one of the easier anti-novels on this list to enter, the story of a man who suffers debilitating brain damage after an accident he doesn’t quite remember and is awarded a fortune in damages, money he uses to hire people to recreate moments from his life he only partially remembers. His obsession with these moments leads him to reenact increasingly violent events that may or may not have actually happened, as the whole thing spins into what might be the textbook example of the most unreliable narration of all time. The questions McCarthy raises about memory, and identity, and how we can rely on what we “know” make the effort well worth it.

    This is Not a Novel, by David Markson
    Markson spent his career aggressively deconstructing and interrogating the novel form. This late work is written from the point of view of an unnamed author who is facing his imminent death and trying to create a work of truth before his time is up. It’s a book-length collection of quotations, lines, and ephemera that look more or less random at first blush. As you read, however, you become aware of a structure: the lines are arranged purposefully, and start to form a greater whole as the character of Writer coalesces without resort to traditional literary techniques.

    Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavić
    If you want to go full anti-novel, discard everything that makes a novel a novel—plot, character, and dialog. Instead, create a reference book for a civilization’s culture and language—one that even comes in two versions, male and female, with only a scattering of incredibly important differences. Jumping off from actual history, this book contains three separate reference works that cross-reference and often contradict each other. Despite the real events that provide the starting point, almost everything here is fictional; whether there’s a plot is up for debate, but it’s certainly a tough, fascinating read.

    Translated Accounts, by James Kelman
    By the time Kelman wrote this novel, he was well-known for the almost belligerent use of Scottish idiom in his prose; the Glasgow dialect he offers up is often profane and impenetrable to the non-native. In this book, however, he explores the boundaries of language in a wholly different way, with a simple premise—a handful of people offer accounts from an oppressed, authoritarian country where martial law has been imposed, the twist being that their accounts have been translated into English by a variety of translators of varying ability, purpose, and familiarity with the original language. To say this mechanism renders much of the action varyingly impossible to comprehend is an understatement—this is an anti-novel in every sense of the word, planting its feet and daring you to try to understand it. It’s also a book that is almost hypnotically rereadable, despite the commentary it offers on the mutability and unreliable nature of language in general.

    Yo Yo Boing!, by Giannina Braschi
    Braschi’s anti-novel is essentially a collection of discussions between unnamed, unidentified people, incorporating prose, poetry, lyrics, and straightforward dramatic dialogue. More importantly, it’s a bravado exercise in code-switching, as her Spanish-speaking characters move between that language and English constantly and fluidly, in the way bilingual people often do when speaking together. Reading it is like eavesdropping on a large group of people as they discuss just about everything, with the setting of the conversations (sussed out through context) moving all around New York City in the late 1980s.

    The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis
    A writer ends a love affair with a much younger man and reflects upon the relationship. Those reflections bleed into everything—from what she’s reading to what she’s writing (which is The End of the Story itself). As the memory of the relationship sifts through every aspect of her life, the man’s identity fades and disappears, and he and the events of their life together become grist for her fiction. There’s no dialog and no forward movement; the entire novel looks back as the events and memories become increasingly indistinct and fictionalized. What actually happened, and what it actually meant, is up for debate. This is a terribly sad book that anyone with regrets over a past relationship will find a powerful—if difficult—reading experience.

    Ice, by Anna Kavan
    Anna Kavan was born Helen Ferguson, and published under that name for decades. In 1940, she dyed her hair and changed her name, and her writing style changed drastically, too. Ice was the last novel published in her lifetime, and achieved her greatest renown; it’s a post-apocalyptic story of a world being strangled by advancing glaciers, and at first, she struggled to see it published. While there’s a premise, there’s almost nothing by way of plot; the prose is dreamy and often trades in disturbing imagery, and the book has been claimed as an early feminist work exploring the repression and brutalization of women in a lyrical, symbolic way. You don’t so much read this book as let the words flow through you, forming, if not a narrative, then an impression of one.

    The post Flex Your Reading Muscles with These 10 Anti-Novels appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/04/16 Permalink

    8 Books That Make Great Party Themes 

    Contrary to popular belief, bookish types love a good party. Just because we’re totally happy staying in and reading doesn’t mean we don’t also like to hit up the occasional rager or elegant dinner party. It’s just that we like our parties—like everything else—to be literary-themed. Luckily, you can’t do better for party inspiration than books. Some of the greatest parties in history never actually happened—they exist solely on the page. And that means that you can take inspiration from books to organize some really kick-butt parties. Here are eight books and series that provide the necessary ingredients for a truly memorable soirée.

    The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    IUnless your name is Gates or Zuckerberg, you can’t afford to throw a Gatsby party—but you can approximate one. Roaring ’20s-inspired fashion, copious amounts of champagne, and lively jazz music is all you’ll need, really. You can also dress for fake success with white tie and flapper garb, if you’re feeling fancy, and don’t forget a buffet table full of delicacies—the guiding principle for a Gatsby party is excess, after all. It doesn’t matter what you serve as long as it’s expensive, and there’s a ton of it. Really, if everyone wears their best cocktail attire, drinks recklessly, and dances wildly, it’s a success!

    The Secret History of Twin Peaks, by Mark Frost
    You might think of Twin Peaks as a TV show, but there’s a surprisingly large library of books associated with it, and that means you can throw a Peaks-themed party using the TV series’ style and still claim literary snob points. Black single-breasted suits, donuts, coffee, and pie, creamed corn (we must all suffer for our art), and iconic imagery from the Lodge, and you’re ready to go. Put the various soundtrack albums on and stream all 20 hours of the third season on mute in the background, and you’ll practically be able to taste the garmonbozia (which we assume tastes terrible).

    A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
    Want a feast? Go “Full Thrones.” Martin describes the various murdery feasts and weddings receptions in his books with an eye towards the food, so you can actually construct a pretty reasonable menu from the novels. Throw in some wine in goblets and you can wield a joint of meat like a scepter and plot against all of your guests. While we would recommend not planning any mass murders at your home, we’ll admit that such a move is the only way to get a perfect score on the authenticity scale.

    The Shining, by Stephen King
    This is a bit of a cheat, as it’ll be impossible not to draw most of your inspiration from the Kubrick film, but still—this is a rockin’ party just waiting to happen. Your ingredients include tuxedos and Gatsby-esque dress for all (extra points for animal masks), canned foods including tomato soup, eggs in the form of omelets, and Jack Daniels and Advocaat, which is a disgusting liqueur made from eggs.We know Jack Torrance specifies bourbon but gets served Jack Daniels, but we assume that’s part of the evil of the Overlook Hotel, so just roll with it.

    Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
    Potter-themed parties are fairly common, in part because it’s so much fun to dress up like a student at Hogwart’s and run about with a wand, and in part because there’s a lot of fun food in the books, beginning with Butterbeer and ending with literally anything you can make into a “potion.” The good news is that there’s a thriving industry producing many of the foods you read about in Potter, so your main chore will be deciding what your potions contain. We suggest alcohol.

    Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
    In other words, not just a murder mystery-themed dinner party, but a classy murder mystery-themed dinner party, with 1930s and 1940s fashions, music, and decor. Staging one of those mystery parties during which everyone is assigned a role, one of you is the murderer, and everyone else must try to figure it out—or die trying—is even better with a Christie theme. This is especially true because Christie’s books are absolutely peppered with references to meals, making it easy to construct a menu that features anything from boiled beef to kippers to scones. If you want to keep it simple, just pilfer the menu described in Murder on the Orient Express: omelets, soup (unspecified), cream cheese, chicken cooked without sauce, boiled fish, cereal, and biscuits.

    I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
    Who’s up for a toga party? The answer is everyone. While Graves’ novels are short on food specifics, you can assume a few things: Wine, grapes, and the poisoned mushroom dish that ultimately kills Emperor Claudius. Of course, you don’t have to make the mushrooms poisonous, and honestly it probably doesn’t matter much what you serve, as long as there’s wine and everyone is wearing togas. Just don’t be the only one wearing a toga, or you’ll wish for poisoned mushrooms.

    Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
    Finally, it’s easy to forget that Fleming wasn’t just a skilled writer of spy thrillers, he was an inveterate snob who loved good wine, good food, and high living—all of which made it into his books in the details. Naturally, you’ll be serving Martinis at this party, but you can also craft a spectacular menu simply by taking notes while you read: crabs on buttered toast, smoked salmon and Brizzola—and of course, scrambled eggs, which Bond refers to so often in the books, they are quite clearly his favorite food.

    The post 8 Books That Make Great Party Themes appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2018/04/11 Permalink
    Tags: , leonardo da vinci, renaissance man   

    5 Novels That Get Leonardo da Vinci Right 

    Leonardo da Vinci is one of those rare figures to have both transcended history to become a pop-cultural figure, and become so blindingly famous that most of us know almost nothing about him. In other words, we knows who he was, but we rarely pause to contemplate how incredible a person he was. That’s changed a bit since Walter Isaacson released the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, a biography that reminds use that da Vinci was not only a brilliant artist and the original Renaissance Man, but a fascinating personality.

    Of course, da Vinci has been portrayed a character in many novels—and not always accurately. It’s easy enough to sketch him out as an eccentric inventor, but it’s something else entirely to craft a character who bears a resemblance to the man as he likely was. These five novels seem to get pretty close, combining lively imagination with historical detail.

    Portrait of a Conspiracy, by Donna Russo Morin
    Morin’s Renaissance murder mystery sees Lorenzo de Medici, one of the rulers of Florence, stabbed to death in public. Afraid to make a direct accusation against the conspirators behind the murder, a group of women engage Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Feast of Herod, with the faces of the murderers included. Morin demonstrates a firm grasp on da Vinci’s methods and philosophy, portraying him as a handsome but distracted man who had a gentle spirit and a brilliant, almost alien way of looking at the world. The tense mystery she constructs around him is quite good, and while she resists the urge to make Leonardo a detective, it is his incredible skills and knowledge that the whole story pivots on.

    Oil and Marble, by Stephanie Storey
    Storey is up-front about her approach to her use of real history within her fiction: she seeks emotional truth as opposed to literal truth, and isn’t ashamed of that. This story is set in Florence at a time when Leonardo was 50 years old and suffering through a particularly challenging period in his life, as newly-arrived—and much younger—Michelangelo became his rival. While the story is fiction, Storey’s depiction of a middle-aged Leonardo is plausible, and in line with the surviving accounts of the man left behind by contemporaries.

    Leonardo’s Swans, by Karen Essex
    What makes Essex’s portrayal of da Vinci interesting is that she views him through the lens of other characters in this complex and subtle fictional biography of the competitive Estes sisters in 15th century Italy. Placed into politically motivated marriages, the sisters see their happiness and fortunes wax and wane, but are ultimately drawn to the brilliant artist and thinker for different reasons: one wants him to pursue the projects that will improve the lives of the people, while the other wishes only to be made immortal as the subject of one of the master’s portraits. In Essex’s skilled hands da Vinci is much more than a figure from history, and seeing him at a remove clarifies the personality hinted at in historical accounts and, ironically, makes for a stronger sense of the person than in some more intimate portrayals.

    A Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis
    A historical mystery wherein Leonardo da Vinci teams up with Niccolo Machiavelli to solve a series of murders that could have come out of a Dan Brown book might not sound promising in the verisimilitude department—but Ennis is far too skilled and subtle a writer to fall into the trap of sensationalism. This is a dense story, filled with glorious detail and intricate characterization that depicts da Vinci (and, for that matter, Machiavelli) in a realistic and accurate-as-possible ways. The cascade of details also makes Renaissance Italy feel real, granting context to the characters and reinforcing the sense they are real people in an extraordinary situation.

    Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance, by Oliver Bowden
    Citing a book based on a popular video game series in which well-intentioned assassins battle evil Templars throughout history might seem an odd choice for a list of accurate historical portrayals. And yet the level of detail brought to this franchise is often impressive—and that applies to this tie-in novel’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci, who is a fairly major character in some of the storylines. Notably, this is one of the few places da Vinci’s possible homosexuality isn’t simply glossed over. We’re not saying you should stay up all night playing Assassin’s Creed as prep for your next AP History exam, but it might give you a reasonably accurate sense of what hanging out with Leonardo da Vinci might have been like.

    The post 5 Novels That Get Leonardo da Vinci Right appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 2:00 pm on 2018/04/06 Permalink
    Tags: , sargento, treated like family   

    Behind a Famous Brand Name, a Quiet Hero 

    One day Tom Faley, a three-decade employee of Sargento, the food company known nationwide for its natural cheese, overheard a group of younger coworkers wondering about the identity of a man in an old photo. Faley was shocked the didn’t know who the man, Leonard Gentine, was—though, as the co-founder of Sargento, he was responsible for the existence of their jobs. He was also Faley’s personal hero. It was unacceptable to Faley to consider Gentine’s legacy might fade into obscurity. So he decided to do something about it.

    The result is Treated Like Family:How an Entrepreneur and His “Employee Family” Built Sargento, a Billion-Dollar Cheese Company, a new book that tells the inspiring story of Leonard Gentine’s life, his business vision, and his dedication to the basic values that made his company great. It’s a book that reminds us that not all heroes are household names, and that sometimes, heroism is about steadfastly sticking to your beliefs and always doing the right thing, even when it hurts.

    The Man behind the brand

    Chances are you’re familiar with Sargento and its cheese. Leonard Gentine—the “gen” in Sargento—was the driving force behind the company from its inception in 1953 until his retirement in 1984, and Faley’s book is as much a story of Gentine’s life—and his family—as it is an American success story. Remarkably, Gentine managed to build a business empire without stepping back from his commitment to family, his support of his community, or his dedication to fundamental concepts of decency, equality, and fairness that sometimes seem in short supply in modern American life.

    The crash

    Gentine’s story begins with a crash—a car accident that saw him damage the vehicle of a local mortician. Unable to pay for the repairs, Gentine proposed an arrangement: he would work for the funeral home for free until he’d paid off the bill. This sort of creative, restless thinking would mark Gentine for the rest of his life—and, impossibly, the arrangement inspired Gentine’s first business: that’s right, the man behind one of the most famous cheese brands in the U.S.  started off as the owner of a funeral home.

    Restless innovation

    The Gentine Funeral Home never quite took off, even as it provided a living for Gentine and his growing family. Faley paints a portrait of a man driven not by greed—Gentine was generous to a fault and famously unconcerned about profits—but by a desire to provide for those he loved. That noble dedication to family drove Gentine to experiment with several businesses, always working feverishly to understand their products and markets and find ways to innovate.

    Sargento has its roots in a humble cheese counter Gentine started when he hit on the idea of selling cheese gift baskets, one of several businesses he launched in his search for the sort of success that would offer his family security.

    Even Sargento, formed in partnership with Joe Sartori (the “sar” in Sargento; the “o” was added to make the name sound Italian), took many years to flourish. In the interim, Gentine concentrated on coming up with new products and taking care of the people who worked for and partnered with him. He spent months perfecting a vacuum-sealable plastic container in order to introduce the first prepackaged sliced cheese, and developed packaged grated cheese by repurposing a pasta making machine, spending long hours to get just the right results and achieving innovations larger companies had failed to perfect. But despite these incredible achievements, Sargento was only modestly successful—until he hit on the supermarket peg.

    Pegged to success

    Today, the sight of products on a metal peg in the supermarket aisle is so common we barely notice, but in 1969, it was an innovation. While Gentine didn’t invent the concept, he happened upon one of its earliest implementations, and immediately saw the potential. He developed a peg system and accompanying packaging, and before long, Sargento was on its way to becoming the household name we all know today. Gentine had help in all of these endeavors—something both he and Faley never hesitate to underscore—but it was the man’s quest to ensure his family’s comfort that drove the ultimate success of the company.

    Family above all

    Gentine’s true legacy is his family. Sargento remains a family-run business, and his five children all went on to be the sort of kids anyone would be proud of. Gentine often stated he was most proud of the corporate culture he created, one in which all the employees are treated like family.

    Leonard Gentine passed away in 1996, after battling Parkinson’s Disease. We tend to think of heroes as people who run into burning buildings or defeat the bad guys, but there’s a different kind of hero who often gets overlooked: the quiet heroes, who stick to their values no matter what, always do the right thing, and never quit. Leonard Gentine was one of them—an American who loved his family and strove only to offer a quality product at a good price , and make his corner of the world a better place.

    Treated Like Family is available April 10.

    This post is sponsored by Triad Retail Media.

    The post Behind a Famous Brand Name, a Quiet Hero appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2018/04/02 Permalink

    5 Reasons to Invite Stephen King’s The Outsider In 

    Around 15 years ago, Stephen King promised the world he was ready to retire, claiming the words weren’t coming to him as quickly as they once had.

    Cue pause for laughter.

    Of course that never happened, and not a one of those years has gone by without a new book from the master of horror and suspense. To be fair, he did say he would still pick up the pen if a great idea came along.

    The great ideas have definitely been flowing lately. The past decade has brought up some of the very best books of his long career, including a trilogy of police procedural thrillers that proved he’s still up for new challenges. And the more we hear about his next book, The Outsider, coming this May, the more excited we are to read it. The synopsis promises a return to classic King material—a small town American town hiding a rotten core, supernatural forces inflicting terrifying events on well-drawn characters, and everyday heroes somehow finding a way in a world gone mad.

    The story is set in the town of Flint, where detective Ralph Anderson arrests a teacher named Terry Maitland for the rape and murder of a young boy. Although Terry insists he’s innocent, DNA evidence says otherwise, and Terry goes to prison. But the evil doesn’t end there, and Ralph soon realizes he’s dealing with something beyond his experience of human depravity—something supernatural, that preys on children.

    That’s about as perfect a King setup as we can imagine. But if you want more reasons to be excited about The Outsider, here are five of them:

    It’s Stephen King

    Is there a better, more consistent writer working right now? We can’t think of one who can match King for quality and prolificness. Just in the last decade, he’s published Under the Dome, 11/22/63, Mr. Mercedes, two great collections of short stories, and more. In other words, he’s been on a tear, and we’ve every reason to expect The Outsider is going to be the cherry on top of the bloody sundae.

    That Cover

    If you’re just mildly disturbed by the idea of a supernatural force that violently abuses children, we’d direct your attention to The Outsider‘s cover: disorienting and terrifying, ominous and stark, save for those burning red eyes. A good deal of King’s recent output has focused more on the procedural aspect of storytelling, drifting into thriller territory—and while those books have been terrific, it’s exciting to see a cover that promises a return to what he does best. Specifically, forcing us to check under the bed before we turn out the lights at night.

    Back to Basics

    The teasing plot blurb also hints at a return to an old-school King template we haven’t seen in a while: small-town terror. King codified the idea of a small community hiding—and being fed on by—immense, inhuman evil. Books like It, Needful Things, and ’Salem’s Lot show us a nightmare version of our world, one in which solid, comforting small-town values are weaponized by malevolent forces beyond our understanding. In the later stages of his career, King has drifted away from that core story, and while his evolution as an artist has been exhilarating to witness, The Outsider’s a thrilling promise of an older, wiser King reexamining the terrifying themes of his youth fills us with a sense of dark anticipation.

    Timely as Ever

    Over the years, King has masterfully integrated pop culture and the feel of the times into his work. When you read Carrie, you can sense the 1970s pulsing through the page; Needful Things reflects the go-go excesses of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Based on what we know about The Outsider, we can expect something calibrated to the anxieties of today, incorporating our current dialog about sexual abuse and harassment, Black Lives Matter, and apprehensions about technology’s hold on our lives. When the world’s going crazy, you need a release—and a good Stephen King nightmare is just what the doctor ordered.

    One Last, Horrifying Thought

    Finally, let’s quote the recent review of The Outsider from Kirkus: “If you’re a little squeamish about worms, you’re really not going to like them after accompanying King through his latest bit of mayhem.” Worms, people. Worms. Stephen King has ruined many nights of sleep with images of clowns in the sewers, bloated post-plague corpses in the darkness, lobstrosities—but this prominent mention of worms leads us to think this one is going to offer a freak-out for the ages. Naturally that only makes us want to read it more. May 22nd can’t come soon enough.

    Preorder The Outsider, available May 22,2018.

    The post 5 Reasons to Invite Stephen King’s <i>The Outsider</i> In appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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