Monday, December 28, 2009
Saturday by Ian McEwan spans the course of a single Saturday in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. It's February 2003 and Henry wakes before dawn. As he stares out his window he sees a bright light that he at first assumes is a comet, but then realizes must be a plane on fire headed into Heathrow. The image and reporting on the plane will follow Henry throughout the course of the day and provide an ominous reminder that it is now a post-9/11 world. This day there is also an enormous protest in London against British involvement in the Iraq War.
Henry Perowne is a wealthy, successful neurosurgeon with a good marriage to a woman he loves and with two children on the verge of independence. His son is a talented blues musician and his daughter, Daisy has been away in Paris, and is about to have a book of poetry published.
The entirety of the novel is spent with Henry's interior monologue and although he has a brilliant understanding of the human brain, he is often mystified by how others think. In addition to the nagging discomfort that the flaming plane and the war protest bring to the otherwise normal day, Henry has a series of one on one scenes with those closest to him.
After meeting a colleague to play racquetball, he has a frightening encounter with three thugs. The leader exhibits a barely perceptible tremor and some speech traits that Henry is able to diagnose as Huntington's. His comments alluding to his observation of the thug's symptoms buy him the time to escape what was certain to be quite a violent episode and Henry goes on with his day.
The evening climaxes in a frightening episode in the Perowne home with the villains reappearing.
Although the unpredictability and uncertainty of the post-9/11 world loom large throughout this story, the theme that stood out more to me was that of the main character's attitude toward fiction as useless. Daisy has given him titles to read and to his credit, Henry does read them but doesn't see the point in inventing things and finds many of the devices in fiction to be unrealistic and overly convenient.
McEwan could be accused to stretching his art to the breaking point in Saturday. Some readers and reviewers have complained that the long, detailed scenes, the obvious political commentary and the structure of the book, with the bones nearly on the outside don't work. I suppose if you were reading this book simply for the story, you could make a case that they don't. I read it with an eye to seeing the detail and delighting in exposure to how it all works and thought it was excellent.
Next up: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
When I opened this book and saw the opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges, I knew this would be no ordinary chronicle. Matthew Battles, a rare books curator at Harvard's Widener Library opens with his experience of trying to "read the library" and I was immediately captivated.
Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles is an exciting and comprehensive journey through the history of the written text that takes the reader from the great library at Alexandria through the near and far east and up through history to the present day.
His prose is at times breathtaking.
"In the stacks of the library (this or any other), I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience; that they make not a model for but a model of the universe. Fluttering down the foot-worn marble stairs that drop into the building's bowels, descending through layer after layer of pungent books, I am often struck by the sense that everything happening outside must have its printed counterpart somewhere in the stacks. It's easy to plunge into cabalistic reveries, dreaming arrangements of the books that would reveal the mysteries of the universe, a sacred Logos tantamount to the secret name of God. Where among the 43 books published in Bhutan in 1983, or the 31,602 published in China, or the 30,000 tablets at Ashurbanipal's long-lost library at Nineveh, or the 300,000 scrolls burned when Caesar flamed his ships at Alexandria, might we have sought the formula for the philosophers' stone? To which of the eight daily newspapers of Western Samoa should we look? wa the name of God carted off to the bookbinders in a ripped manuscript stolen from Salisbury Cathedral during the troubled reign of Henry VIII? Or encoded among some number of the 2,635 children's books published in Iran in 1996 alone? There's a reductive danger in this fantasy; for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book -- why not into a single word?"
But the history of libraries and the cultural and political forces that drove their creation and tragically and predictably (as we learn with growing horror) their destruction is vastly more fascinating than I could ever have guessed.
Battles describes things I'd never given any thought to -- like the evolution of the methodologies for cataloging and organizing books, the decision making process to determine what a library curates and how these curators, these librarians throughout history came to be.
Repeated tales of the destruction of libraries and sometimes, entire civilizations are such a frequent part of our global history and yet it's hard to comprehend.
"A century after Alexander encircled his city with a wall of flour, the Qin emperor Shi Huangi began to connect his far-flung forts with the stone embattlements that would become the Great Wall of China. According to the chronicles, Shi Huangdi next undertook the most extensive book burning the world has ever known. His aim, the same chronicles tell, was to destroy all Chinese literature, all history, all philosophy written before the founding of his dynasty. When he died, six thousand terra cotta warriors accompanied him, buried together in a vast funerary complex near the modern-day city of Xian, in central China. As the chronicles have it, though, he didn't extend the luxury of effigy to the traditional Confucian scholars: they were buried in person when their books were burned."
This may be true or it may be exaggerated.
"Mythical or real, biblioclasms have their reasons. Often they are accidental, as when Caesar torched his ships in the harbor at Alexandria. Purposeful book burnings are of two kinds: they may be attempts at revision, such as with Shi Huangdi; another example comes from the emergence of Islam, when the Koran's adherents burned other religious texts deemed unauthoritative. In this case, the burning was a kind of sacrament; believers consigned the books to the flames almost reverentially, lest they contain words of truth hidden among the pages of error. Or books may be burned in order to erase their authors and readers from history, as the conquest of Mexico shows."
Throughout history, from the ancients to the Nazis to the burning of the Bosnian National and University library in Sarajevo, biblioclasms -- what an amazing word -- have continued.
Battles takes us through the history of access to libraries and how very recently it was that in this country, African-Americans in an astonishingly large part of the nation were denied access to public libraries.
This book was published in 2003 and Battles brings us into the digital age to ponder where texts and the library are headed.
So much that I'd never thought about and so beautifully told.
Next up: Saturday by Ian McEwan
Sunday, December 20, 2009
The events of 9/11 feel like that to me too. Although volumes have been written about it and the video events recorded that day are readily available online, the thoughts and emotions in those moments of realization and in the days, months and years afterward are more difficult to reconstruct with accuracy. Naturally, we can all recount where we were and what we were doing that Tuesday morning and most of us would say we have a vivid recollection of what we felt at that horrific moment when it became clear what was happening. I have my doubts that our memories are as lucid as we'd like to think they are. The very act of remembering something slightly alters it each time we remember and so regardless of how confident we are in the veracity of those thoughts and feelings, we unconsciously change them.
And as the news coverage in the minutes, hours, days and weeks consumed us, it seems to me that the task of trying to comprehend what it all meant was a private process. We craved information but were at a loss as to what to do with it. We talked about what had happened and what may happen, but I don't think many of us were able to verbalize what it might mean.
Fortunately, there are plenty of reviews and blog posts about Falling Man by Don DeLillo to help aid my memory about the book. It was not long, but the appearance of simplicity was deceptive and it's not surprising that this story of a handful of characters left me with no real comfort or answers. What book could?
The story begins after the first tower has collapsed and DeLillo's opening sentence approaches perfection:
"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night."
Keith Neudecker, a 39-year old lawyer has escaped the building with minor injuries and walks to the home of his estranged wife, Lianne. He arrives carrying a briefcase he'd picked up on the stairway on his way out of the tower. Several days afterward, Keith locates the woman who owns the briefcase and returns it to her. The shared experience of having been in the tower makes a physical affair inevitable, although the sex seems almost a necessary excuse for them to continue talking about it.
Lianne is an editor, but also leads a workshop to help sufferers of early stage Alzheimer's to chronicle their lives. As time passes, the participants begin to dwindle as their memories disappear.
Keith and Lianne's young son Justin exhibits troubling behavior "after the planes" and engages in secretive behavior with two neighbor children that includes staring out the window with binoculars, looking for more planes and whispering about "Bill Lawton".
The instinct Keith initially follows back to his family opens up the possibility of reconciliation. Their failed marriage has fractured under the weight of their dwindling ability to communicate, but the events of 9/11 spin them apart further, now in new, still separate directions.
The book is divided into three sections and at the end of each, we enter the life of one of the hijackers and follow him on his path from indoctrination into a terrorist cell to the moment of impact. Because the story flashes back and forth in time, the interjection of Hammad's story serves to further disorient. Hammad's final dedication to Jihad provides a disturbing counterbalance for Lianne's private longing for the possibility of God.
The "Falling Man" is a performance artist who appears at random locations around New York City. Dressed in a suit and tie, he "falls" from the ledges of tall buildings, horrifying bystanders. His performances end as he dangles upside-down in a safety harness in emulation of the horrific, iconic photograph depicting one of the hundreds who fell or jumped to his death, rather than be consumed by fire and smoke.
The Falling Man's performances elicit public shock and outrage and eventually even debate on an academic panel as to the appropriateness of 9/11 "art". This loose thread that weaves through the novel begs questions about the timing and appropriateness of the novel itself. After years of writing fiction that came eerily close to predicting the terrorist attacks and the subsequent conspiracy theories that followed, it is interesting to note that none of the usual stylistic flourishes in DeLillo's larger works are present. There are no big messages, no analysis or commentary on much at all about the factual aspects of the event. The characters are detached from each other and from themselves. There is a numbness that pervades all of them and although they remain together, Keith and Lianna are even less connected after 9/11 than they were before.
Published in 2007, Falling Man made me recognize some realities about the impact of 9/11 on my own life. On that September day I was married to another man, living in another city and I was, I now understand, a different person. It took nearly this long to make a connection.
For more complete synopsis and analysis, see the reviews at The New York Times Book Review,
The Quarterly Conversation, The Guardian and The Village Voice.
Next up: Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles
Saturday, December 19, 2009
I should make a couple of points before I explain my problems with it.
Inherent Vice is the first Thomas Pynchon I've read. From the standpoint of accessibility, it was a great place to start. Based on my subsequent reading of Gravity's Rainbow and after talking to Pynchon fans, I'm certain this book is more straightforward than any of the others. And it's only fair to note that because the author's work has been so celebrated, my expectations were unusually high. And finally, Inherent Vice is a detective novel. Millions of people adore them, but they've just never been my thing.
Pynchon has a number of distinctive quirks. I've only read two of his books, but I'm betting these affectations are in all seven. His characters all have oddball names, he sprinkles fictional lyrics throughout the narratives and his sense of humor is kind of corny. Some readers adore this about his work. I find it a little goofy, bordering on irritating.
There are other qualities about his writing that I like a lot. His work is frequently described as encyclopedic. I was overwhelmed and amazed by the variety and sheer volume of cultural, scientific, mathematical, historical, cinematic, literary and religious references in Gravity's Rainbow. Although Inherent Vice is nowhere near as ambitious, it is full of cultural and political references that firmly place the story in 1970. In both works, the blend of both real and imagined musicians, actors, songs and other touchstones has the interesting side effect of almost, but never quite grounding you.
Because he's spinning so many plates, it's easy to overlook the fact that Pynchon is an exceptional prose writer. Unfortunately, there were far more examples of great writing in Gravity's Rainbow, but now and then, something in this book made me stop to read it again:
"He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free."
I won't take the time to run through the storyline. You can find many fine pieces from actual book reviewers to get the synopsis. For the most part, it follows the kind of arc you'd expect for a detective story, although it bogs down a bit in the middle. I confess that I spent a great deal of time losing focus, not really knowing what was going on or what the point of introducing yet more characters into the mix was, all the while feeling like I must have gotten high without knowing it. The main character's constant dope smoking is infectious. And unlike Gravity's Rainbow, the story does come to a resolution that's satisfying enough.
How do I feel about Pynchon? He's brilliant. This book was a miss for me, but I look forward to going back to the beginning and reading more of him.
Next up: Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Friday, December 18, 2009
This story is about the artist and art and the balance (or imbalance) between intellect and passion.
"Gustave Aschenbach -- or von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday -- had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk. It was a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19__, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months."
Aschenbach is a widower and highly respected literary figure from a conservative Prussian family. He places great value on hard work and concentration and considers the defeat of passion necessary to the creation of art. He values dignity. While on his walk he has a strange encounter with a disturbing, red haired man and almost immediately decides he'd like to take a trip. He tells himself that a change would be good for his work.
In the first of several dream sequences that occur throughout the story, Aschenbach fantasizes about a tropical marshland, the decaying, primeval, steaming landscape clearly representing suppressed passion and desire. He wakes and reverts to his normal cautious, dignified restraint and takes two weeks to carefully plan his trip.
He leaves the cold, intellectual, restrained northern European environment and travels south to Venice where the climate fosters unrestrained passion and decadence.
Soon after he checks into his hotel on the beach, he sees a fourteen year old Polish boy who is vacationing with his sisters, mother and a governess. Aschenbach finds Tadzio beautiful. At first he believes (or wants to believe) that his attraction to Tadzio is purely aesthetic. He's on holiday to write and arranges to work on the beach where he's also able to watch Tadzio all day long.
A strange antiseptic smell begins to pervade the city. To avoid alarming the tourists, the Venetians are keeping the reason quiet and claim it's merely a precaution. The German language newspapers provide no clues as to what's happening. The tourists are warned to avoid shellfish and fresh fruits and vegetables and as the days pass, vacationers begin to leave and there are fewer people on the streets.
Aschenbach makes plans to move on, but when he finds that his baggage has been misdirected to the wrong city he's ecstatic at the thought that he'll have to stay while it's retrieved. This is his point of no return. Aschenbach's admiration for Tadzio evolves to undeniable desire and lust. Aschenbach can no longer concentrate to work and becomes obsessed with the boy, planning his days to follow Tadzio and watch him from a distance.
Soon the smell of death is everywhere and a local finally reveals there's a cholera outbreak. Aschenbach no longer cares about the death and disease in Venice and fantasizes that perhaps everyone will die and leave him to spend time alone with Tadzio. His dreams are now filled with unbridled lust.
Aschenbach physically deteriorates. The hotel is nearly empty and he discovers that the Polish family is departing. He goes to the beach to watch Tadzio for the last time. The blond, pale Tadzio is roughhousing with an older, dark haired boy and the larger boy humiliates Tadzio, leaving him with his face in the sand.
Aschenbach watches from a beach chair as Tadzio walks toward the water alone in his shame. The boy turns around and looks to Aschenbach who sees, or believes he sees the boy beckoning to him. Several minutes later, Aschenbach is discovered dead of cholera in his chair.
I read Gravity's Rainbow several months after reading this and there were elements that were similar. Both books represent the north as elite and cerebral and the south as base and carnal. Both books draw heavily on mythology and dreams. Death in Venice is actually a great primer on the modernist style and certainly a great example of exercising economy with words.
That Mann chose to center Aschenbach's obsessions around pedophilia and homoerotic elements leaves me with questions. Mann was married and had six children, but it's believed that he was a homosexual. There was also an actual Tadzio that Mann and his wife saw while on a seaside vacation, although the real Tadzio was only eleven at the time. Were these factors part of the story because Mann was illustrating Aschenbach's extreme reaction to complete suppression of his libidinous nature?
If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Next up: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Something was changing for a long time. It took about a year to understand it, but now I do. People who've been coming here for a long time know that the original focus of this blog was on writing. For a long time I couldn't stop writing and I couldn't stop talking about it. I took classes and workshops and attended retreats and wrote the better part of two bad novels before I stopped to try to figure out what my problem was.
It became obvious over time, but what I found was the more I challenged myself with what I read, the more unhappy I became with what I was writing. A woman I met through blogging and emails came to Denver this summer and we finally met in person. She'd read the first hundred pages of my second attempt and what she told me came as a strange relief. She thought what I'd written was very good, but after getting to know me she had a hard time reconciling what I'd written with who I am. It didn't sound like me.
By that time, I'd stopped writing completely and I focused all my energy on reading. I'm glad I did. The truth is that I don't want to write something I wouldn't want to read and I'm not capable of writing that well. Maybe I never will be.
Over the past few months I've started writing again, but I'm not working on a novel. I have notebooks full of ideas and fragments and pages of gibberish that would make Gertrude Stein chuckle, but it's what I need to do now. In 2009 I all but abandoned poor Eudaemonia. I didn't know what to say.
Now, I think I do -- at least here on this blog.
I've finished twenty-one books since my last post about reading. Catching up won't be easy, but I have a plan. I'll write about one book a day until I'm caught up.
For those of you who are new here, understand that I'm not a book reviewer or literary blogger. I'm not even a college graduate. I'm just someone who likes books. My intent in writing about them is to capture my personal and not always rational opinions about the books. I don't presume to assign literary merit. I put a great deal of thought into what I read, so my going in position is that they're all "good" (as meaningless a word as it is).
Here's the list of books I've read, but not yet talked about. Tomorrow, I'll begin.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles
Saturday by Ian McEwan
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Night Train by Martin Amis
The Brain Dead Megaphone by George Saunders
Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas
Cathcart and Daniel Klein
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Mark Twain in Hawaii by Grove Day
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel by Steven C.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Catholics by Brian Moore
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser
I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between reading and writing and of course -- about the books.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Back in April, I joined a group of readers who, at Moonrat's suggestion made lists of 100 books to "fill in the gaps" in their reading lists. I am such a fickle reader that I knew it was unlikely I'd work my way through my own list with any consistency. There's a list of books I've read in 2009 at the sidebar and clearly, I have a short attention span. What was I thinking when I read The Iliad (not on the list) instead of The Odyssey? On the other hand, Proust, Pynchon and Wallace were no walk in the park.
Nevertheless, here's the list of 100 I came up with April with the books I've read since then in bold font:
1. The Odyssey, by Homer
2. The Oresteia, by Aeschylus
3. Oedipus the King, by Sophocles
4. Medea, by Euripides
5. The Aeneid, by Virgil
6. The Confessions, by Saint Augustine
7. The Divine Comedy, by Dante
8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
9. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
10. Utopia, by Sir Thomas More
11. Plays and Poems, William Shakespeare
12. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
13. The Misanthrope, by Moliere
14. Pensees, by Blaise Pascal
15. Phaedra, by Jean Racine
16. Candide, by Voltaire
17. Faust, Parts One and Two, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
18. Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac
19. The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal
20. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
21. The Haunted Pool, George Sand
22. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
23. Essays, Matthew Arnold
24. The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin
25. Marius the Epicurean, by Walter Pater
26. On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
27. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope
28. The Picture of Dorian Gray
29. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
30. Dead Souls, by Nikolay Gogol
31. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
32. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
33. The Tales, by Anton Chekhov
32. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
33. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
34. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
35. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
36. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
37. Baltasar and Blimunda, by Jose Saramago
38. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust (I've read volumes 1 - 3)
39. Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre
40. The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
41. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, Essays by Albert Camus
42. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
43. Howards End, by E.M. Forster
44. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
45. Ulysses, by James Joyce
46. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett
47. The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
48. The Complete Stories, by Franz Kafka
49. Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann
50. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil
51. The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass
52. The Master and the Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
53. Collected Stories, by Isaac Babel
54. The Cancer Ward, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
55. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
56. Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist
57. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
58. Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges
59. Canto General, by Pablo Neruda
60. A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul
61. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
62. Foe, by J.M. Coetzee
63. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
64. Under the Volcano, by Malcom Lowry
65. Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood
66. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
67. My Antonia, by Willa Cather
68. The Making of Americans, by Gertrude Stein
69. Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
70. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
71. The Cantos, by Ezra Pound
72. Collected Stories, by Katherine Anne Porter
73. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
74. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
75. Herzog, by Saul Bellow
76. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
77. The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
78. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
79. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
80. Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue, by Philip Roth
81. Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, by John Updike
82. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner
83. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
84. The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch
85. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
86. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
87. The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald
88. The Age of Reason, by John-Paul Sartre
89. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
90. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
91. War and Peace, by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy
92. Walden Pond, by Henry David Thoreau
93. Selected Works, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
94. Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
95. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume
96. Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirov
97. Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
98. Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth
99. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
100. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
I suppose it's time to revisit and revise this list -- at least so I can replace some of the titles I'll probably never read with some I already have.
Somehow I've gotten it into my head that in January there may be a big online reading of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Anyone interested?
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I want to come back to this blog and to be present here and so to kick start myself, I'm going to try and make a little sense of the literary trip I've been on. The list of books I've read since I last posted has gotten too long to go into much detail about each book, so rather than do that I'm going to give a single thought on each. Let's see if my recent foray into Twittering can help me cut to the chase.
The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust
This is the third of the seven volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The more I've read of him, the easier he is to read and the more awe inspiring he becomes. Once I finish Sodom and Gomorrah I'll be a little antsy because only the first four volumes of the newest translation have been published. I recently acquired Lectures on Literature by Vladmir Nabokov and among the seven fabulous lectures published from Nabokov's nearly twenty years teaching at Wellesley and Cornell is one on Swann's Way, complete with photos of the marked up book and class notes. Reading the notes of one master on another is exhilarating.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
I'd not read any Muriel Spark but after reading this story, I'm a devotee. Fortunately, Muriel Spark was prolific and left many novels and short stories behind. Her work is funny and she was a woman ahead of her time who lead a fascinating life.
Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
Mike Henry from Lighthouse Writers Workshop once said that Humboldt's Gift made him want to become a writer. I now know why. I read this book after reading The Adventures of Augie March, a novel that is now one of my favorites of all time. Saul Bellow was one of the finest American novelists who ever lived.
Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill
I loved Mary Gaitskill's novel, Veronica and I thought her story collection, Bad Behavior was brilliant. This new collection of short stories had a couple I loved, but it was a little uneven. Mary Gaitskill is a writer who makes my stomach tighten up into a knot. Her characters are damaged and the stories are raw. She scares me a little and I like that.
The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles
Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus -- all surprisingly engaging and readable. The plays help to fill in my educational gaps and they help me to finally understand all the references in Woody Allen movies.
The Iliad by Homer
I confess to putting this one down at about the halfway point, which was still quite a bit of reading. I've seen "Troy" and I get the gist of the story. Don't get me wrong, it is a great story and it too helps to fill in referential gaps, but at times it reads like a gigantic inventory of the names of every character involved in the Trojan War.
Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass
This book (and another with a similar title) came out in April, ten years after the Columbine High School shootings. With distance and perspective, it's clear there were some inaccuracies that colored the original reporting on the killers. They weren't the victims of bullying they were first made out to be. Could anyone have predicted what they did? Based on what I read, I don't think so. I was surprised to learn that Harris and Klebold were actively planning the details of their attack on Columbine for over a year, which was ultimately what I found most chilling.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton has a way of making sophisticated topics accessible to anyone, which I suppose is my way of saying that he can dumb down a discussion about Proust or philosophy and make them interesting to me. In this book, he's taken the problems of unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties and offered consolation via the teachings of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The Consolations of Philosophy is an entertaining and educational form of CliffsNotes for the aspiring philosophy student.
Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams
This memoir was written by an Iraq veteran and Arabic translator who wrote the book while still in her twenties. Much of Williams' story is told around her frustration at the enlisted chain of command, frequently feeling she was taking orders from people who weren't very smart and about the sexual dynamics within the military. Any woman who has ever worn a uniform knows that to most of young male co-workers, she's either a bitch or a slut. The author talks about her experiences in Iraq, witnessing death and carnage and the toll that it takes, but it was her struggles as a woman that broke me down. I cried. The woman who wrote this book doesn't have perspective on her experiences yet and although she doesn't know it, she's got a lot of growing up left to do. She comes across as smart, tough, strong and a little cocky at times. I know her. I was her.
Erasure by Percival Everett
Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network did an excellent series of posts on each of the many works in Everett's oeuvre. Here is his post on Erasure. Erasure is about a black academic whose novels are obscure and considered inaccessible. In a bout of frustration, in one sitting he writes out a parody of the kind of black novel he disdains. It's full of stereotypical characters and street jargon. He sends it to his agent and to his shock, the publishing industry goes crazy for it. Percival Everett is one of the most prolific postmodern writers you've probably never heard of. Read him.
Halfway House by Katharine Noel
Set in a small town in New Hampshire, Halfway House tells the story of a teenage girl's sudden psychotic break with reality and the turmoil her mental illness brings to each of the four members of her family. Mental illness is treated with compassion and fidelity and Ms. Noel is a gifted writer.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Of this debut short story collection I will only say that it's superb. If you are a fan of the form you must read this book. Here's what the New York Times Sunday Book Review thought of it.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore is one of the finest short story writers writing today and in October I'll be fortunate enough to attend a writers studio event with her. Moore's stories are funny and they're sad. They're about ordinary people and they're usually in the midst of tragedy of some sort. Her characters are ordinary people. This interview in the Guardian provides a good sense of Moore and her work.
This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman
This poignant memoir is the most difficult book to write about. Vicki Forman is a writing professor and a blogger I came to know through her words before the book was published. This post at The Rumpus was my favorite of the reviews I read. Vicki gave birth to twins at 23 weeks and the story of what happened is about loss, grief, hope, struggle and ultimately about acceptance and love. There was so much that touched me personally and gave me a second chance with the time and the distance I now how to relive the loss of my own child in 1990. This story is tragedy and it's triumph and it poses questions about medicine and the law. It makes us take a hard look at what medicine can do, what we should do and who makes those decisions.
Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice
I so loved Carleen Brice's debut novel that I wasn't sure how I could love Children of the Waters as much as I did Orange Mint and Honey. After finishing this novel in two sittings, I found there was nothing to worry about. Carleen outdid herself. The book's chapters alternate between two half-sisters with very different experiences and backgrounds. Brice handles both sides of a silent conversation about race that for most of us is remains a one-sided dialog. I feel like I often times am Trish -- the white character who, despite having black friends and family she loves will never be able to experience things from their perspective. Brice forces the sisters to work through the often unrecognized issues that in what some are calling a "post-racial" age, almost everyone continues to struggle with. Brice has again given us the fantastic Denver backdrop that she writes like no one else does. Children of the Waters is a great story that's beautifully written.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
It's here that I will cease my brief treatment of books. In my last post, I talked about my decision to join thousands of other readers to read Infinite Jest this summer and read it I did. I finished it within the first two weeks of the event and went on to tackle the remainder of his work (I've still got 2 1/2 books left). Millions of words have been dedicated to discussing Infinite Jest as well as his first novel, Broom of the System, his short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, his essay collections, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster and his exploration of the scientific concept of infinity, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
Through Infinite Summer, online friendships have been made and an incredibly brilliant incites made in some of the smartest blog posts I've ever read. I found myself reading so many of them, nodding and saying "yes, I thought that too", but unable to contribute in any more coherent way. You'll note the title, This is Water listed among the books I read. I'd read this in its original form some time ago. You see, it was never intended as a book by Wallace, who took his own life at the age of 46 last September and it was published posthumously. It was originally delivered by Wallace as the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 and you can read it in its entirety here. In light of the release of the book, it's quite possible you won't be able to find the speech on line much longer, so if you haven't read it and if you haven't read any of David Foster Wallace's work, I urge you to do so.
Reading Infinite Jest changed the way I look at literature and it made me stop working on the things I was writing so I could start over. Perhaps David Foster Wallace's worldview and his words speak so directly to me because we're of the same era, he born in 1962 and me in 1961. Maybe his unique take on the world, which was not just the dull irony and disdain for modern culture that I fear many of his imitators have given to us, but it was an almost embarrassed exposure of the absurd that was infused with both sadness and compassion and in the end, hope.
Wallace was not an imitator. He approached style and structure in a way that had never been done and that will never be done again. His work was at times the most difficult that I've ever read and at the same time, the most enjoyable. He made me work to read him and it was worth the work. Every person I've spoken to who has read Infinite Jest finished all 1,078 pages and immediately went back and re-read the first chapter. Some people have read the book three and four times. I know I'm likely to be one of them.
Thoughts on what I've been reading? What you've been reading? Recommendations?
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I will dedicate separate posts to each of these fine books this week, but for now let me recommend This Lovely Life: a memoir of premature motherhood by Vicki Forman and Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice's second amazing novel. For now, I'll just say that both books touched me deeply and on a very personal level and I'll talk more about that and about these gifted writers and wonderful people when I post about each book.
In December of 2007 I did a post about my teetering TBR stack and I had a special category for cinderblock-like books that pose special challenges:
"Last, by by no means least, I have the titans. The long, hard tomes that I'd like to read for one reason or another. I suspect I'll save and tackle these big guys for vacations or in case I end up in a body cast and incapacitated for months on end. I'm very interested in hearing from anyone who has read any of these books. I can see this picture doesn't show the titles well, so they're: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, All four Rabbit Novels by John Updike and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace."
I'm pleased to say that I've read the first three volumes of In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust and I've finally been given the incentive to start Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
In early June, Matthew Baldwin launched Infinite Summer an online campaign challengingThis Lovely Life and Children of the Waters.
David Foster Wallace, who was known for his essays, short fiction and novels was probably best known for his 1996 masterwork, Infinite Jest . I, like many of the other readers to tackle Wallace's 1,079 page novel between June 21st and September 22nd. At roughly 75 pages a week and with participation estimated at more than 2,000 readers, the idea of taking on the massive work is far less intimidating. Since I'm a huge cheater, I started the week before but did stop twice to read Infinite Summer participants had read much of his shorter work and had purchased Infinite Jest with all good intentions to read it. Many of those reading it now had started it once or twice before, but had never finished. I suspect most readers were like me and after flipping through the densely written, heavily end-noted monster decided that a book like this would need time specially set aside for it.
Social networking has really enhanced the "we're all in this together" feeling of this summer read with over 2,500 people following Infinite Summer on Twitter and over 4,000 members on the Infinite Summer Facebook group.
As of this evening, I'm on page 395 and after admittedly battling through the somewhat disorienting, yet captivating first two hundred pages, I am on board and strapped in for the ride. I've never read anything quite like this and sadly, neither I nor anyone else ever will again. Certainly, Wallace's tragic suicide after a lifetime battling clinical depression has given this project a bittersweet edge.
I have a whole list of books I've read since the last time I posted and I want to hear about what you've all been reading. How are you? I've missed you guys.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Choosing which books to read, of the thousands if not millions of choices is an overwhelming decision. For each book I read, there are thousands that don’t make the cut. Time is precious. Until this year, I read lots of great books, but I didn’t have a plan or a method to guide my choices.
I decided to get more intentional with my selections and that begged the question, what am I looking for in a book? I ran across this post from 2006 at litblogger Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading. Scott’s focus is on modern and postmodern fiction and he reads quite a bit of work in translation (and in Spanish, for that matter). I’ve included two litblogger’s lists in their entirety (although each of the original posts has more content) because I think their criteria is interesting. Scott has some specific criteria to identify what he likes and he’s listed them in order of importance.
Ongoing Dialectics. I like to feel that the book I'm reading is a debate, not a lecture. I like to feel that I can't judge what the author's intent is until the last page, and sometimes not even then. If I think the book is becoming too obvious in what it's trying to tell me, then it becomes just a dull demonstration. I get bored. I probably won't finish it. The ideas that animate a book should be like a tightrope walker, now teetering a bit one way, now teetering a bit the other way, always forging forward on an invisible thread. Note that this debate can take many forms--debates over philosophical ideas are the most obvious, but a book could also debate any of the following: different interpretations of a character, different value systems, different interpretations of events, different approaches to constructing a narrative or conducting a life, different styles. Note also--there's no rule that there can only be one dialectic per novel.
Challenging prose. Challenging prose is interesting prose. I love feeling that an author has abandoned me to a room full of hostile words. See, for instance, the beautifully complex sentences of James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, or William Gaddis. I like feeling like I'm constantly under pressure to interpret what the wuthor is telling me. I'm also interested in challenging prose on the level of a story: see, for instance, the narratives of Kazuo Ishiguro or Manuel Puig--I love how they continually make me feel like I'm just a step away from cresting a hill, after which I can look down upon the story and finally see how it works. (Note also: this moment is inevitable, but it is also inevitably a letdown; I like it when authors delayed it as long as possible.)
Stylistic creativity/skill. I almost put these into two separate categories, but then decided I couldn't separate one from the other. Some authors tinker with form, some perfect forms that have already been invented, but either way I think it requires a good deal of creativity and skill. Regardless of whether they're tinkerers or perfecters, however, I think authors should be showing me something I haven't seen before. Imperfections in style, while unavoidable, should be rare and forgivable. Also under style comes voice, which should be strong, original, and suit the aims of the novel. However, if I feel like a book has nothing to say, or that the prose isn't interesting, then very rarely will I keep reading, despite how much stylistic creativity or skill is present.
Depth of metaphors. I love metaphors with multiple meanings, and I love it when authors can orchestrate their books so that these metaphors interact in interesting ways. I would reference the works of Haruki Murakami here, most notably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I especially love book-spanning central metaphors that become a pivot point. A caveat: this is not an invitation for limitless complexity. Obviously there's a limit to how much meaning can be loaded into a metaphor before it becomes contrived, not to mention confusing.
The book makes an attempt to embody the workings of some organism. While not a deal-breaker, this is something I look for and am interesting in. Call it a pet interest of mine. Most often, the organism observed is the human mind, but I chose the word "organism" because I didn't want to limit things a book can embody to only the human mind. For instance, Don DeLillo's narratives don't embody the workings of the human mind so much as the systems that societies are organized upon (see also Orwell, David Mitchell, Pynchon). There have also been authors who have attempted to build alien consciousnesses.
Fidelity. Authors are free to tell their stories in whatever world they choose (our own simply being the one most commonly chosen). But once they have decided on their world and the rules that govern it, authors should never break those rules for frivolous reasons. Deus ex machinas suck (unless they're being explicitly used to point out something interesting about how they suck).
Characterization. Although I recognize that authors can use flat characters to good effect, I'm far more interested in well-characterized characters. Simply put, I think people are interesting and I like learning about them. I like seeing the creative ways an author can draw a character and how well the subtle nuances are brought out.
Economy. I don't have terribly strong feelings about sparse prose vs luxurious with prose, but if I have to choose one, I'll easily choose too sparse. Did I mention I love minimalists?
Humor. I think many good authors are playful authors, but I don't think being playful is the same thing as being humorous. Many authors are playful, but few are humorous. I like it when they are. See, for instance, DFW, who makes me laugh out loud.
Big Books. This is somewhat whimsical, so I'm putting it pretty far down the list, but I do have a soft spot for big books. I'll forgive more in an epic simply because I often admire its scale.
A sense of playfulness. I will confess that a novel with a playful prose style is likely to tickle my fancy more than a straightforward tale written in that humorless realist mode that James Wood is so smitten with. This is not to suggest that I am adverse to realism or serious fiction. Richard Yates remains a firm favorite and I’ll go into the whys of this a tad later. The playfulness, however, should adhere to some reasonable human construct. It should be justified, motivated not by an author flexing his chops (see Dave Eggers and, to some degree, Saul Bellow, early Martin Amis, and Benjamin Kunkel), but because the nature of the fiction requires it. But here’s the strange loophole: If an author presents a unique and distinct way of seeing the world (such as Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers or David Foster Wallace), I’m more willing to forgive him his narrative digressions.
A concern for details. I have a soft spot for books that dare to present the world’s quotidian details in ways we haven’t seen before. Nicholson Baker comes to mind. Carol Shields too. Colson Whitehead, definitely. I suspect this is why I also like Updike so much and am willing to forgive Terrorist (and even the dreadful Gertrude and Claudius) for its flaws. When Updike writes about old buildings being split up like a cardboard box, there is something in his phrasing and imagery that makes me quite giddy. I feel as if I am seeing the world in ways that I haven’t observed it before. Sometimes, it could be through a miniscule detail in the phrasing. Sometimes, it’s just outright daffy foci. When Baker describes a paperclip and dares to chart precisely how it was manufactured, I feel indebted to him for overlooking some pivotal aspect of the world that I should be paying attention to.
Keeping it real. I’m not a big fan of magical realism. My bullshit detector flies off the charts when people inexplicably begin flying in the middle of a novel because the author can’t determine a way to progress his narrative forward. There are certainly exceptions (Murakami, Calvino, Borges) with authors who dabble in the surreal, but, for the most part, such exercises escape a writer’s first and foremost duty: to convey the human experience in a way in which we can believe it. I can believe, for example, the extraordinary world of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon because there is an underlying structure to its gaslights, its curious criminal justice system with the Remades, and its underground scientists toiling away at experiments in dingy apartments. Likewise, I can look at a book like Richard Yates’
Revolutionary Roadand ferret out the precise details which reveal the Wheelers’ discontentment. The environs or the genre or the highbrow/lowbrow status matters little to me. It’s the verisimiltude that keeps my motor purring.
A fresh perspective. For the next LBC round, I nominated a book that had one of the most unique perspectives I had encountered in some time. It was not simply the book’s unusual and quite idiosynchratic perspective that rocked my world, but, tied into my last point, the realization that this author had weaved a tale of unexpected poignancy that felt as real as any other tale. This harkens back to my earlier point of recontextualization. I think Scott and I differ a bit on this point. We once got into a heated conversation about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which he felt that what Mitchell was portraying was typical and I defended the book’s ability to recontextualize both narrative and the world around us, while agreeing that its platitude-stacked ending was a bit of a letdown.
A sense of ambition. One of literature’s great challenges is to push the envelope further in a way that we haven’t seen it before. I can forgive a flawed book like Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which I wrote about here, because it’s attempting an earnestness that is well at odds with the irony-soaked novels and literary realism so fashionable today. Likewise, if Robert Coover sometimes leaves me cold or a John Barth volume flounders, the ambition still sticks to the craw.
Giddy experimentalism. To me, Gilbert Sorrentino and David Markson are extraordinary writers because they experiment in a manner which invites. Sorrentino’s elaborate lies (such as the giddy notion of a character playing “roles” in various novels offered in Mulligan Stew) and Markson’s sentence-by-sentence approach to narrative remind us that experimentalism doesn’t have to be a cold and off-putting affair. Theirs is the purest and most difficult form of experimentalism to pull off.
Difficulty. I like books that challenge me. Books that I have to deconstruct, books in which I constantly have to look up things, books that compel me to reread them later, books I savor. I like books in which I don’t really have a sense of what’s going on until Page 75. I like books, like Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, that, with its index, suggest an interconnectedness that a grad student might spend weeks dwelling upon. I like Gaddis’s approach to dialogue in J.R., where we have to work to figure out who is speaking (which implies that we really aren’t paying nearly as much attention as we should).
Balls. I like writers who make me feel uncomfortable. I like writers who tell the truth. I like writers who want to take me to places I would never visit in a million years. I like writers who throw me into a horrific place and refuse to take the easy way out.
My goals as a reader aren't nearly as sophisticated. These are two litbloggers, among a number of them that I find interesting and I learn a lot from them. They eat and
For now, this is my list:
Originality. An artful novel needs to tell a story in a way that’s never been done before or present a unique perspective. The artfulness and originality may be in the story itself, the themes, the characters, the structure or the prose, but there has to be something that is unique to each author’s style.
Challenging Prose. I’m an active reader. I like it when an author makes me stretch. Proust has stretched me a fair distance. I’ve had to look up unfamiliar words and terms and refer to endnotes to understand cultural, geographical and historical references in order to understand and enjoy the work. Saul Bellow’s work is similarly challenging at times, but I love the payoff.
Ambition/Risk Taking. This makes me think of a novel I read last year that was incredibly ambitious, highly original, had deeply drawn characters and somehow just missed the mark. I would rather read a novel where the author has gone out on a limb, even if it doesn’t quite work than a formulaic story that works, but where the author didn’t take any chances or try anything new.
Characters With Depth. A book needs multi-dimensional characters to work.
Artfulness. Fine writing leaves me with a sense of wonder and the sensation that the author has superhuman powers. The perfect metaphor, description that is unusual, but never jarring, appropriate use of rhythm and the ability to write sentence that goes on for hundreds of words without exhausting the reader are all characteristics of artful writing. I love an author who gives me sentences or paragraphs that are so beautiful that I have to stop and read them again and maybe even break out a highlighter so I return to them and savor them again.
I’ve always been drawn to modernist literature and it seemed logical to me that I should start the year out by starting Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. The modernist literary movement peaked in Europe in the early 1900s and According to Wikipedia modernist literature involved such authors as Knut Hamsun (whose novel Hunger is considered to be the first modernist novel), Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Dylan Thomas, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Andrei Bely, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luigi Pirandello, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jaroslav Hašek, Samuel Beckett, Menno ter Braak, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Frost, Boris Pasternak, Djuna Barnes, and others.
Reading In Search of Lost Time has been a great reading experience. I finished the third volume last night and will take a Proust break for several books before I start the fourth. It has made me realize how satisfying it is to me to not only read, but to study literature. The beauty of reading titles that are so canonical is that there is no shortage of information and opinion about them, so I've been spending quite a bit of time reading blogs that focus on literature and literary criticism.
Some of the blogs and websites I've been reading lately are: The Reading Experience, Chekhov's Mistress, Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes, A Commonplace Blog, Maud Newton, The Elegant Variation, The Millions, Wyatt Mason and The Believer.
Where does all this heavy reading and studying leave my writing? Where, indeed.
I haven't touched my draft novel, The Foundling Wheel in months, but I have been trying my hand at some short fiction. I have always puzzled at the idea that some writers find that they are influenced by the writers they read. Never once did that happen to me, until recently. I don't know that stylistically Proust has had much of an influence, but the views into character and his detailed observations have profoundly affected the way I think about telling a story. For the double whammy, I find myself trying to emulate Saul Bellow.
There's no way to predict what path I'll take with writing now. Maybe I'll trash everything I've ever done and start over and maybe I'll decide that studying and absorbing the great works already in print is enough.
How about you? Do you plan out your reading list, and what do you look for in a book?
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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.