Since time available for reading (and blogging, obviously) has been seriously cut back due to a longish driving commute, my progress on Then We Came to the End has been slow, slow, slow. I'm also now leaning toward disliking the book, which doesn't up my enthusiasm for getting to the ending.
Although some of it is acerbically funny, a whole lot more is depressing. Take Janine Gorjanc, whose daughter was kidnapped and later found murdered. To make matters worse, the missing child billboard erected during the search remains standing long after the body was found and serves as a constant, painful reminder. As a result of the trauma, Janine's marriage breaks up, her personal hygiene begins to slide, and she goes on several psychiatric medications. Since the main premise of the novel is built around office gossip, no one speaks to her directly about her problems. So, her cubicle's adornment with photos of the dead daughter and ex-husband become a source of discomfort to those around her, people whisper about her smell, and an unhappy co-worker steals her meds for himself.
For the most part, my issues with the book relate to the characters themselves. As the layoffs begin and progress, they become disfranchised admen who engage in over-the-top antics as rebellion. But since Ferris also offers a look into their sad home lives, jokes that might have seemed funny to me a moment earlier suddenly become tragic. I know too much about them to laugh at them and they never laugh at themselves with me (the reader) even though they spend plenty pages laughing at each other.
I'm going to try and suspend my final judgment on the book until the end because I've been told there's a payoff. I hope so.
Imagine the scene: it's the 2007 National Book Awards. In the banquet hall, each table features a centerpiece made up of copies of the nominated titles. Invited guests polish off their desserts while, up in the balcony, the press and a small pack of bloggers put some polish on their writing. Fran Lebowitz speaks the last words of her closing remarks and the awards ceremony officially ends. Lured by the scent of freebies, crazed bloggers stampede down the stairs and run through the banquet hall grabbing books as authors and industry-types topple in their wake.
Well, it wasn't exactly like that. But I'm sure I moved at a quicker clip than usual. And I did stick my finger into an untouched dessert tray just for a little taste. Whatever happened, my copy of Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End started out as an NBA centerpiece.
It's a hardcover and it has been pissing me off. Not the story, which is entertaining enough, but the actual, physical object.
First off, I took off the dust jacket. Such action is sort of counterproductive since the jacket exists as protection, but I find it a nuisance. Jackets tend to creep skyward on me, making books too tall and gangly. Up to now, Then We Came to the End has been at home, at work, in the car, and on several lunches. The poor thing is becoming positively filthy, and it bothers me more to wreck a hardcover than a paperback.
When at lunch, the damn thing is simply too heavy and inflexible to hold open with one hand while eating with the other. I am forced to read with it lying on the table, so it also has been doubling as a placemat.
Then yesterday as I rode the elevator, I dropped the book on my foot. One of its corners got smashed in the fall and I have a little round bruise on the top of my foot. I'm glad I didn't break a toe, but none of this is helping me love the thing.
Hoo boy, I am ever so glad last year is behind us. A topsy-turvy end to 2007 rendered me incapable of reading nothing more rigorous than wine bottle labels. And even those sometimes proved too difficult to sort out: "Cabernet Sauvignon? Merlot? Pinot Noir? I will be serving meatloaf. Is there no hero to rescue me from the Wines of California aisle of the discount liquor mart?"
Drying out and getting back in the swing, I'm currently making my way through Joshua Ferris' NBA nominated Then We Came to the End. Just prior, I re-read Matt Beaumont's e, a comedy about antics at an ad agency which is comprised entirely of e-mails. Ferris' book is also a comedy about an ad agency, but the gimmick here (Do all novels about ad agencies have a gimmick?) is that it's written in first person plural. I'm only a handful of pages in and am waiting to discover what merited the NBA nomination, but I've been assured by others that the end of Then We Came to the End is where I'll hit pay dirt. Thus far, however, e is still winning in chuckles and has a slight edge because it only requires a commitment of a few hours.
I have been meaning to write a wrap-up post about the NBAs, but at this point I feel as though all my strength is going toward surviving until the four-day weekend. Although I believe a relative is expecting me for the holiday, I think I'm going to beg off and hole up at home.
In the meantime, I have been devouring audiobooks because the arrival of winter weather has nearly doubled my commute. A book on tape makes the drive bearable. It took to about halfway through Stephen King's Dreamcatcher before realizing that I have already both read the text and seen the movie. Obviously, either occasion wasn't memorable enough to keep me from grabbing it on tape. I wish I hadn't remembered the movie, though, since now I can't get the image of Donnie "Duddits" Wahlberg's bald head out of my mind. Now that's horror.
Although I cringe in horror at seeing myself on video, here is Jason Boog's video of bloggers talking about the NBAs.
When I said, "I think that maybe 20 years is about the right time to actually have a fiction book written that gets it right," I meant 30 years. It's been roughly 30 years since the Vietnam War ended. I should definitely stick to blogging because a post could have been easily edited as soon as I realized the error.
Here are a few more photographs before I drag my exhausted behind to work. First, a shot of the ballroom:
This is Walter Mosley, who I recognized right away without any outside assistance—probably because of the hat. Not long ago, I read The Man in My Basement, which started out strong but turned into a disappointment in the end:
And here's my attempt at capturing Christopher Hitchens:
Eh, that one's pretty bad. But think about it: glass of wine...Hitch...glass of wine....Hitch. Which would you rather have?
Right after I took the headless picture of Joan Didion, Toni Morrison chatted with her for a few moments. They posed for a few photographs together, but it should come as no surprise that I didn't get the shot:
Michael Cunningham presented the award to Joan Didion, and I have no idea what he said because he nearly put me to sleep. After Joan Didion gave her acceptance speech, Ira Glass awarded Terry Gross The 2007 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
During all the speech-making, I started receiving text messages and a phone call from one of my old educational publishing cronies. She just happens to be in town for NCTE and—major, major coincidence—was just one floor above me in the New York Marriott Marquis.
As the authors took a break from the ceremonies to eat their dinner, I ran upstairs for a quick hello. The educational book world hasn't changed much. During my brief visit, I got to hear about a conference, be present as a cell call came in about a $1 million adoption, and catch up on some gossip about which book giant just bought which other book giant. And she pointed out Justin Timberlake, who happened to be up on the 9th floor at a private party.
Afterwards, Levi joined me outside for a cigarette break. An author, whose work I love, who also happens to be one of the judges for the best fiction novel, was outside smoking a cigarette. Of course, I had to introduce myself. In conversing, this judge happened to mention a few vague details about the winner and now Levi and I think we figured out who it is. I'm not going to give it away, but now I can't wait for the announcement so we can find out if we're right.
Since someone was designated as an official "stuff watcher," I headed down to the cocktail party for drinks and hors d'ouvres. I managed to nab three glasses of red wine and one bite of something called "lobster pudding."
And I recognized no one. I'm sure I was in the presence of many great writers, but I had no idea. Thankfully, Levi and Sarah were readily able to match up names and faces. They've been pretty pleasant so far about my constant question, "Who's that?"
At one point, I saw a bunch of photographers run over and begin frantically photographing someone. Someone who I thought was Francine Prose. So I ran over and snapped one of my own:
Yeah, I'm no Annie Leibovitz. And that isn't Francine Prose, who, I just discovered, isn't 85 years old. The headless cane holder you see there is none other than Joan Didion, the recipient of The 2007 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
I'm sitting at "the blogger table" at the National Book Awards at the Marriot Marquis in New York City, chilling with Marydell of BookBlog, Jason "Publishing Spot" Boog, Ed "Ed Rants" Champion and Sarah "Sarah Weinman" Weinman. There are decent sandwiches, wine and drinks, lots of literary schmoozing (I just chatted with two of my favorite writers, Fran Lebowitz and Ken Kalfus, and met several interesting people). We're now waiting for the ceremony to begin, and below us on the main floor is a representative sample of the entire literary establishment. As I gaze at the well-dressed crowd, I think to myself: are these *my* writers? Do I relate to this whole scene? What can I learn from seeing so many esteemed authors (Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, Toni Morrison) in one place, and how many of these writers do I truly esteem myself?
Well, like I said, Fran Lebowitz and Ken Kalfus are here, so we must be off to a good start.
And I'm glad to be at the blogger table with Mary, watching and waiting to see what we'll see.
Okay, so I'm sitting here in the press balcony at the National Book Awards...and feeling incredibly under-dressed. Going clockwise around the table, we have Sarah Weinman, Levi Asher, and Ed Champion. Jason Boog is off wandering with his video camera.
Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, just stopped by our table. Apparently, the judges for the NBAs only get a small stipend for their efforts, but their perk is being able to choose any restaurant in NYC for lunch.
As I typed the above, everyone in the press balcony left in order to check out the goings on at the red carpet and cocktail party. I volunteered to watch our stuff, but it seems as though one of the publicity people has been placed up here to do just that. Maybe I'll ask her if watching the stuff is her job.
Bob Minzesheimer from USA Today has just introduced himself, so I have invited him to join our table. He seems like a very nice fellow, and I have to admit that I actually enjoy USA Today's book coverage. It's short and straight to the point. Even better, he said he thinks he's heard of BookBlog.
Although I've sort of let the site slide while I've been trying to adjust to my new life circumstances, get ready for some blogging fever. Tomorrow night, I'll be attending the National Book Awards alongside fellow bloggers Levi Asher, Jason Boog, Ed Champion, and Sarah Weinman. We're planning on storming the press balcony and, technology permitting, liveblogging from the event.
To be perfectly honest, I love books but have no idea what most authors, including huge names, look like. Luckily, though, I recently received a review copy of Writers from The Quantuck Lane Press. It's a coffee table book featuring more than 100 author photographs paired with a short text from each on the art of writing. I think I'll bring it along to study during any available downtime, mostly to see if it will help me pick some writers out of the crowd.
Two major changes have recently happened, keeping me from all of my usual diversions:
On very short notice, a family member needing a helping hand has temporarily moved in with me. I'm used to being on my own, so it has required some serious adjustments.
My day job, which had been fairly easy, has suddenly become extremely demanding. The work sort of snuck up on me, but I've begun to really enjoy the challenge.
As a result, I have had very little time to read. So, I have switched over to audiobooks for the commute. The traffic is unpredictable enough for a ride anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, and I am very glad for the alternative to drive-time radio.