The Daily Beast's "Hot Reads" for September [Sometimes a Gimmick Is Not a Gimmick]
Great news for Open Letter! The Daily Beast just posted a selection of five “Hot Reads” for September: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft (Norton), We Have the War Upon Us by William J. Cooper (Knopf), Sutton: A Novel by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion), Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown), and The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Open Letter).
Yay for us! And for Benjamin and translator Brian Zumhagen!
Before getting into the piece itself, I just want to say that we’re planning an October reading tour for Benjamin, and he’ll be in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, and Rochester between 10/15 and 10/30. All the details will go up later this week.
Also, if you’re a subscriber your copy of The Canvas is going out tomorrow. When you read the next post, you’ll understand the unfortunate delay in this. And if you’re not a subscriber, SIGN UP NOW and I’ll give you this book for free, in addition to your 5-book or 10-book subscription. (You’ll also be able to sleep better at night knowing that you helped out an ambitious, kind-hearted nonprofit press that’s over-loaded with activities and trying its best to spread the love of international literature.)
Here’s the write-up on The Canvas by The Daily Beast:
It’s rare that a book with an obvious gimmick isn’t, on some level, attempting to compensate for a deficiency that would glare more brightly under standard presentation, but luckily for Benjamin Stein, his new novel is far less experimental than it first appears. The book has two front covers, so that the reader can begin from either starting point and work his way toward the middle, each direction telling the story from the point of view of a different protagonist, First, Amnon Zirchroni, is a psychoanalyst in Zurich. The other, Jan Wechsler, is a publisher in Munich. For both men, their Judaism figures large in their lives, and in fact at the physical middle of the novel features a glossary of Yiddish terms that pervade the book. As the two stories close in on each other, a mystery develops around a potentially fabricated Holocaust memoir that echoes the real-life case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book Fragments, published in 1995. Although the bifurcated format is interesting for a minute or two, the best way to approach this book is to read alternating chapters of each character; in other words, like a standard narrative. And, really, there is no need for the distraction: this is a heady, distinctly German book with philosophical inquires on memory, identity, and language itself, and the complex plot should have had the confidence to stand on its own.
This is a great description of the book, and makes me want to reread it immediately. Also, I would recommend reading alternating chapters rather than one narrative than the next, but really, the choice is yours.
Personally though, I don’t think this is as much of a gimmick, as The Daily Beast writer claims it is. Let me explain.
The point of the two-sided, no-front-or-back set up is so that neither narrative—Amnon Zichroni’s nor Jan Wechsler’s—receives an preferential treatment. The core concept of this book is about the faultiness of memory, the malleability of reality, and the process by which we come to believe (or not believe) in something. The way you read this book will alter what you come to think about the main characters—in particular, Minksy, the Wilkomirskyi-esque character.
One idea that I had (thanks to former intern/U of R student Acacia O’Connor) to promote The Canvas was to send manuscript versions of it around to various readers organized in a variety of ways: with Zichroni’s complete narrative followed by Wechsler’s, vice versa, or with alternating chapters beginning with Zichroni, and vice versa. There are multitude ways you could read this book, but just those four would result in varied responses from readers, which is something I find really interesting. And which is why the book is printed like this. It’s not to be gimmicky, but to underscore the fact that neither of these narratives is more privileged than the other. (Which is one reason why this isn’t an ebook—you’d have to list one part before the other, or do something that wouldn’t be completely neutral.)
Anyway, thanks to The Daily Beast for kicking off the mass attention this book is certain to generate. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about this book over the next couple months.