Aggressively marketed nachos

I know I joke around a lot about having only one or two readers and, for the most part, I’m not joking. Like seriously, I see the numbers. There are about five of you—six on a good day—and I’m grateful for every one. But on this lovely day in June, I find myself particularly grateful to one reader in particular (no, not you mom) who by virtue of her totally enviable job in book publishing, sent me some freebies in a very official-seeming package that arrived at my office yesterday, forcing me to gloat to my coworker (another reader, bless her) about how totally awesome I am and how probable it is that in the not-so-distant future I will be far too famous for my book blog to bother with a regular 9-to-5 and she should probably get on my schedule now if she wants to still be friends in 2012.

So thanks, new favorite reader (I am withholding your identity because I don’t want to get you in trouble for sending books to a reviewer with a 5-person audience one cannot predict the magnitude of attention you would get if I mentioned you by name.) It’s nice to write book reviews; it’s even nicer to think that someone, somewhere out there is enjoying them.

On to The Ask! I first heard about this book sometime last year, when it was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. (Seriously NYT, something like 200,000 books are published a year and you can’t bother to limit it to one review per? I just don’t know how my imminent memoir about growing up an upper-middle-class suburban white girl will ever break through.) Since I am criminally awful at summarizing the actual plots of books—have you guys noticed?—I’ll just steal a paragraph from Lydia Millet’s review:

“The Ask” describes a crisis in the life of one Milo Burke, a deeply cynical academic development officer, earnest binger on doughnuts, avid consumer of Internet porn, and devoted father and husband. Detailing the meltdown of Milo’s career and marriage, “The Ask” takes place in an exhausted and passive institutional workplace—the kind of futile office space we know from such cinematic offerings as, well, “Office Space.” … When Milo loses his job, then gets a chance to have it back if he can reel in a big fish—a major gift from an old college friend who’s now a Machiavellian tech millionaire—he starts down a grim and spiraling path.

That’s enough (unlike the Times, I don’t believe in giving away a novel’s entire plot in a review.) The bottom line: The book is about Milo, a definitive sad sack with artistic aspirations but limited motivation, who alternates his time between grandiose ruminations on “the meaning of it all” and just run-of-the-mill complaining. “We were stuck between meanings,” he writes. “Or we were the last dribbles of something. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.” (Confession: This was the easiest quote to pull as it was referenced in not one, but both Times reviews. SERIOUSLY NYT, GET IT TOGETHER.)

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By Nightfall: Some of my favorite quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes from By Nightfall. These are, I should note, prettay prettay long. It’s the kind of book that gets you with entire paragraphs

“He’s one of those smart, drifty young people who, after certain deliberations, decides he wants to do Something in the Arts but won’t, possibly can’t, think in terms of an actual job; who seems to imagine that youth and brains and willingness will simply summon an occupation, the precise and perfect nature of which will reveal itself in its own time.”

“There’s New York, one of the goddamnedest perturbations ever to ride the shifting surface of the earth. It’s medieval, really, all ramparts and ziggurats and spikes and steeples, entirely possible to see a hunchback cloaked in a Hefty bag stumping along beside a woman carrying a twenty-thousand dollar purse. And at the same time, overlaid, is a vast nineteenth-century boomtown, raucously alive, eager for the future but nothing rubberized or air-conditioned about it, no hydraulic hush; trains rumbling the pavement, carved limestone women and men—not gods—looking heftily down from cornices as if from a heaven of work and hard-won prosperity, car horns bleating as some citizen in Dockers passes by telling his cell phone ‘that’s how they’re supposed to be.'””We—we men—are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not. Our impersonations are failing us and our vices and habits are ludicrous and when we present ourselves at the gates of heaven the enormous black woman who guards them will laugh at us not only because we aren’t innocent but because we have no idea about anything that actually matters.”

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It’s about like, art and stuff

By Nightfall, which I’ve written about before and was sad to finish last night, is in many ways hugely different than Gilead. For one, it’s set in present-day Manhattan, and follows the travails of a rather well-off married couple, he an art dealer, she a magazine editor. So yes, a far cry from the spiritual musings of last week.

But in other ways, the books are surprisingly complementary. In Gilead, an older man questions the motives of his best friend’s younger son (himself middle-aged) who reappears in town after a long absence. In By Nightfall, the story picks up when Mizzy (short for “The Mistake”), younger brother of protagonist Peter Harris’ wife Rebecca, appears in the city, having “recovered” from a problem with addiction and looking for a job “in the arts.” Like the narrator of Gilead, Peter is distrustful of (and yet also enamored of) Mizzy. He simultaneously wants to improve him and be rid of him, and perhaps most importantly, he’s concerned—obsessed, even—with what those conflicting emotions mean. (To clarify, the books are hugely different in many other ways, not least of which is Peter’s mild attraction to Mizzy).

Though I loved By Nightfall on several levels—writing, setting, dialogue—the book’s true strength is its characters, who seem so effortlessly real that I keep expecting to run into one of them on the 4 train. Peter and Rebecca as the comfortable married couple, Mizzy as the wayward and frivolous 20-something, Bea (the Harris’ daughter) as the malcontent young female, whose rebellion takes the form of leaving her parents’ SoHo loft for a job in a Boston hotel bar. (Again, the connection with Gilead: What is one to make of their daughter fleeing New York for a mundane existence hundreds of miles away. And how does said flight reflect on one’s attempts at parenting?)It’s hard to decide what By Nightfall is the best portrait of: addiction, marriage, art, New York? All of the above, really. And that’s all I’ll say, both because I don’t want to give away any of the story, but also because there’s a lot of devil in these details. By Nightfall has a plot, of course, a good one at that, but the book is more than anything compelling because it seems real. Not Jersey Shore “real,” not even Intervention real. Real like when you surreptitiously eavesdrop on someone’s conversation. Real like watching a father and son fight at the supermarket. Real like going home. That is, if your home was a loft in SoHo.

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