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Haruki Murakami didn't win the Nobel -- but these books prove why he deserves it

The Nobel oddsmakers were wrong—again!

Year after year, bookies put their bets on Japanese author Haruki Murakami winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Instead, the Swedish Academy announced this morning that the honor had gone to French author Patrick Modiano.

2014 was feeling like Murakami’s time: His 13th novel Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimmage hit shelves in the U.S., and his fourth book of short stories, Men Without Women, has been announced. Earlier this week, The New Yorker ran his short story “Scheherazade.” It’s almost as if the Murakami machine—although not the notoriously fame-indifferent author himself—had been subtly campaigning for the win.

But even though Murakami still isn’t a Nobel Laureate, he’s written numerous works that demand to be read (or binged). The 65-year-old author has been writing four hours a day without fail for around 35 years—that’s a lot of lit to go through—so we’ve narrowed down his output to four essential novels that are perfect gateways for newbies: READ FULL STORY

Steampunk gears up for a broader audience

Those who watched Doctor Who‘s season premiere this August were confronted with something strange—and it wasn’t just the striking new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. The episode, “Deep Breath,” was set in Victorian England…but there were robots. And not futuristic-looking robots, either—ones full of gears, pistons, and other old-fashioned mechanisms, the sort of technology that actually existed in the 1800s. These robots were patently impossible, far more advanced than anything an engineer could have created back then. They were also peculiarly plausible. They were, in short, steampunk.

As a sensibility, steampunk—a word that evokes old-timey aviator goggles, brass machinery, and, of course, steam engines—is nothing new. It’s trickled into the mainstream on numerous occasions over the years, from the frontier gadgetry of The Wild Wild West (both the ’60s TV show and the ’90s movie based upon it) to 2010’s “Punked,” the steampunk-themed episode of ABC’s hit show Castle. That said, it’s never fully broken through to a broader audience the way, say, epic fantasy has, thanks to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. (Or the way quirky science fiction has with Doctor Who, for that matter.) But a handful of steampunk writers—some humble, some ambitious—are currently working to change that.


What We're Reading Now: 'Broken Monsters' by Lauren Beukes


The first paragraph of Broken Monsters is the description of a murder scene — a very unusual murder scene. A young boy has been chopped in half, his lower body is missing but his torso is fused to a deer body…

It’s not like I didn’t know I was getting into a crime/horror novel; Leah told me as much when I grabbed it off her desk. But still, kicking off the hunt for a serial killer with such a graphic image on page one, line one was … a lot. Also, the first chapter is called “Bambi,” and that alone gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Lauren Beukes, who previously authored The Shining Girls, crafts her villain brilliantly. She doesn’t make him a tortured genius, but rather a maladjusted, deplorable man — a broken monster. The creativity of his violence knows no bounds and is presented without frills. Beukes balances the extremity of his actions and the utopia in his mind with simple, elegant prose. The imagery and emotions don’t get lost.

The subplots are just as interesting: There’s the detective, the killer, the detective’s daughter, the journalist looking for a big break. The father trying to care for his homeless family. They all have issues (this is an understatement) and as each story overlaps with the others, you become increasingly aware of how poorly it will end for everyone. The anticipation and dread Beukes crafts is remarkable.

Also remarkable is Beukes ability to blend genres, seamlessly incorporating horror, fantasy and traditional crime in ways that highlight the best parts of each (suspense, creativity, a methodical outline). It feels new — unprecedented, in a way.

There is most certainly a moral to her story. She provides rich, layered commentary on the desolation of dreams with her decaying Detroit setting.  It’s about the pressure of mass desire. About how to reassemble broken pieces. About the darkest side of humanity.

If any of the above sounds like maybe you don’t have the stomach for this sort of thing, you probably don’t. I can’t say I enjoyed the book, despite being incredibly impressed with all its machinations. If, however, the grotesque and a perpetual sense of doom sound oddly appealing — you have most likely just found the perfect book for you!



Who is Elena Ferrante? An interview with the mysterious Italian author


Do you know Elena Ferrante? The Italian author’s urgent, blistering fiction has made her something of a cult sensation here in America. I myself had never heard of her until this summer, when I dove deep into her Neapolitan series, an intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena, bright and passionate girls from a raucous neighborhood in working class Naples. Ferrante writes with such aggression, and such unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship, the real world can drop away when you’re reading her. “My work is sometimes a struggle,” says Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s long-standing Italian translator. “It’s very intense and very disturbing and sometimes I have to walk away from the words. But then when I’m done I sort of think ‘Wait, where are those people? My life is now empty.’”

The third installment of the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which catches up with Elena and Lila in their roiling 20s, was published in America this week and Ferrante is subject of rapturous odes in everywhere from Vogue to The New York Times. And yet, despite all the accolades and attention, no one really knows Elena Ferrante because “Elena Ferrante” doesn’t exist. READ FULL STORY

What We're Reading Now: "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer


Once upon a time, I told you I liked all (literary) things weird: Weird plots, weird alternate universes, weird special powers, weird bendings of time and logic. And I do. But recently I’ve been on a kick of devouring novels that are firmly grounded in the real world. Last week‘s was heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity. This week’s pick, while not necessarily as beautifully told (no offense, Meg!), is also a keen observation of human relationships.

In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer follows six creative teenagers — they range from wannabe-musicians to stand-up comedians to cartoonists — and charts their dreams and friendships as they age from kids at a Summer Camp for the Arts to adults. Some become disillusioned 30-somethings. Some opt for practical, lucrative paths. Some stay the course, forever chasing the dream.

I can’t imagine that this novel doesn’t hit home for everyone who reads it. Sure, we didn’t all go to artsy camps or belong to theater troupes, but we’ve all dreamt about being a rockstar, haven’t we? We all grew up wanting to be special, different, recognized. But that doesn’t happen for everyone. In fact, it happens for almost no one. The Interestings (currently in paperback) is an incredibly perceptive account of all that goes into giving up, or sticking with, such dreams; about society and the indignities of actually becoming the starving artist. READ FULL STORY

What We're Reading Now: 'Arts & Entertainments' by Christopher Beha


Have you met Jacob the Intern? You should, especially if you like to read, as he is full of suggestions. I spent a little time at his desk last week and in the middle of explaining something I needed help with he quietly asked what I was reading / what I like reading / did I want to borrow Arts & Entertainments?

I did, I discovered, after he finished explaining why he liked it (his review for EW can be found here). I did, also just now discover, that I never finished explaining what I needed help with…bold move, Jacob, you’re trickier than I thought.

Social commentaries aren’t necessarily right up my alley, but as someone who oscillates between reality TV binging, crying at the love between Kim and her sisters, laughing hysterically at the Real Housewives of WhereverTheyAre, and alternatively scorning Ryan Seacrest Productions’ roster, hemming and hawing about the rise of the Reality TV Star — a book about all the weird mechanics of fame today is perfect.

Beha gives Eddie Hartley, our failed actor at the novel’s center, everything and nothing that he wanted. He gives him fame and failure and longing and a pregnant wife and a sleazy agent and as many fans as haters. Along the way, we see the intricacy of modern fame: the 24/7 star, whose tabloid antics, social media presence, and relationships are as (or sometimes more) important than any of their work.

It’s short and fun and and was an easy read, but there’s also something to chew on. We definitely recommend you add it to your list.

What else should we be reading? What’s on your nightstand?

What We're Reading Now: 'Friendship' by Emily Gould


No post last week, as I assumed we were all off reading The Constitution with our nearest and dearest, but we’re back together again to discuss the much (much) lauded Friendship by Emily Gould (EW‘s review is here.)

The way I came by reading Friendship is this: Stephan popped by my desk asking, “Do you like reading books about yourself?” I giggled a little—wholly unaware there were any books about me—and just as I was about to flip my hair, give a little wink, and mutter something mind-blowingly witty, he quickly clarified that what he meant was, “Do you like reading books about youngish ladies working in publishing in New York City living the messy, crazy struggle that is working in publishing in New York City as a youngish lady?” READ FULL STORY

The life and times of a ghostwriter (or, how Kendall and Kylie Jenner became published YA authors)

First comes fame, then the magazine covers, the signature perfume, the makeup collection, and—yes—the novel.

Tyra Banks, Pamela Anderson, Nicole Richie, and Britney Spears are just a few of the stars who have novels to their credit, and much like clothing collections or advertising gigs, their literary offerings are considered a commercial product with which to cash in on their fame. And the latest to join the celebrity-turned-novelist club are teen darlings Kendall and Kylie Jenner, who catapulted to fame as the half-sisters of Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney Kardashian.

The Jenner sisters—ages 18 and 16—have just released their first novel, Rebels: City of Indra, marketed as dystopian story about two girls who take off on a journey “amid the constant threat of danger.” But is there any pretense that Jenners or any other celebrity—with their modeling and reality television careers—actually sit down and write these books? (Remember how hard it’s been for Hannah Horvath of Girls? And she actually wants to become a full-time writer.)

The answer, it seems, is a resounding “no.” “I don’t have any expectation that any of the celebrities that I sign or work with will be able to sit down and write a book,” says Rebels publisher Karen Hunter, who has worked on books with Kris Jenner and Tamar Braxton. “I don’t know that many teenagers that could write a book, period.”

Enter the celebrity ghostwriter, usually a seasoned novelist or journalist who gets connected to celebrity projects via literary agents (paired together in what ghostwriter agent Madeleine Morel calls a “matchmaking process”). Then, for a price—a negotiated fee typically between $20,000 and $40,000—ghostwriters will churn out several hundred pages that will ultimately be passed off as a celebrity’s creative endeavor. Which, it turns out, is okay with celeb-crazed readers.

“Fans don’t really care whether or not a celebrity wrote it or not, as long as they can visualize the characters and the setting,” says Valerie Frankel, who’s written several novels under her own name and ghostwritten others, including a 2011 New York Times bestseller for Jersey Shore sensation Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.

But that’s not to say celebrities aren’t part of the process; they’ll usually create a novel’s characters and plot, providing a foundation for a ghost writer to expand on.

“It’s an escape out of my own head to work with other people and be inspired by their lives, and their stories and their characters,” Frankel explains of collaborating with pop culture phenomenons like Polizzi. “It’s as satisfying as writing a novel under my own name.”

Rebels ghost writer Maya Sloan agrees. “It’s a gift to be writing, making a living,” says Sloan, who did “a ton” of interviews with the Jenner sisters and spent hours studying their preferences, style, and language in order to accurately transmit their personalities onto the written page. “And to me, writing is collaborative. That’s how the face of writing is changing—we need to own it.”

Though Sloan’s name appears on the Rebels title page along with the Jenners’ manager, Elizabeth Killmond-Roman, ghostwriters aren’t often acknowledged at all in a book (that largely depends on how savvy an agent is at negotiating—and how willing a celebrity is to share the credit). And while slapping a celebrity’s name on a product seems to be an easy sell, these novels actually aren’t guaranteed bestsellers, says Morel.

“Stars think writing a book loosely based on their life is the way to go, but most of these books don’t sell,” explains Morel. “Fiction is too subjective.”

The books that have done well—like Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy series or Hilary Duff’s Elixir trilogy—are aimed at young adult and 20-something audiences who are captivated by their idols’ forays into literature (and will likely also purchase their branded nail polish or musical albums). However, following the success of 50 Shades of Grey, both Mob Wives star Renee Graziano and talk-show host Wendy Williams have ventured into a new kind of celebrity novel: erotica.

Might that be the next big thing? Maybe. But for those who prefer a youthful brand of dystopian chic, feel free to hold out for a Rebels sequel.

“There’s more to come,” says Hunter of the Jenners’ literary efforts. “They’ve already figured out what’s coming next.”

What We're Reading Now: 'The Vacationers' by Emma Straub


I’ve been moaning about wanting the perfect summer read for a while now (let’s not count the number of posts I’ve mentioned it in, mkay?). Everything was falling a teensy bit short of expectations: a flat character here, a lame plot twist there, something always sitting a bit wrong. I’d all but dashed my hopes for the season when Stephan came across this one, emailing me immediately about having the book for me / this blog / any upcoming trips / summer days / lazy afternoons / quiet moments by the pool / longish hours on the plane / do you get what I’m saying?

I didn’t want Stephan to get a big head, thinking he was my only book-friend in this office so I wagged my finger, chiding him, “Maybe someone else wants to give me a book this week.” The Vacationers would have to wait, or so I thought.

And then…


Donna Tartt's 'Goldfinch': Love it or hate it?

It’s not every year that an 800-page literary novel becomes as popular as The Goldfinch. Yet the book, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 33 weeks, is pretty polarizing — people either seem to really like it or they can’t stand it. It wasn’t nominated for the National Book Award, but it won the Pulitzer.

Last week Vanity Fair surveyed literary critics who panned the book when it came out. New Yorker critic James Wood, who wrote in his original review that the book’s “tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature,” told Vanity Fair that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, said that Tartt’s novel uses, rather than breaks, clichés. “Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap,” he said. Stein thinks The Goldfinch might misrepresent fiction as a whole. “What worries me is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction—realistic fiction, old or new—is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”

None of these reviews hurt The Goldfinch, of course, which is still a huge best-seller. It’s so popular that even though it’s a Hachette title, it’s exempt from the current Amazon-Hachette feud. While other Hachette books, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s, might take three weeks to get to your house, Amazon offers regular shipping  for Tartt’s novel.

Most people probably didn’t go out and buy The Goldfinch because they heard it has “fine-chiseled sentences” or whatever other phrase usually employed to praise a work of literary fiction. I suspect they picked it up because they heard it tells a great story — the book’s popularity seems to rest on Tartt’s storytelling skills and not on her prose (in her review of The Goldfinch, Francine Prose wrote about Tartt’s “baffling turns of phrase”). Even the Pulitzer committee said the book “stimulates the mind and touches the heart” but didn’t mention anything about the writing style.

Did you love The Goldfinch or hate it? And why?

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