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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Library: An Unquiet History

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

Falling Man

It seems fitting that of the books I've read in 2009, only two were audio books and both of them were 9/11 novels. I say fitting because I don't feel the same connection to an audio book that I do to a tangible book. I can't dog ear a page or highlight a paragraph. When I want to write my impressions about it, I can't go back and skim through to remember the names of characters or to refresh my memory.

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

Inherent Vice

One of the benefits of being a selective reader is that I like and often love almost every book I read. It pains me to say anything negative about any book, but I do want to talk about this one. Of the books I've over the last few months, I least enjoyed Inherent Vice. See, I can't even come out and say I didn't like it.

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

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann published Death in Venice just prior to the start of World War I. At 73 pages, the novella doesn't waste a word. It's infused with signs and symbols rooted in Freudian psychology and Greek mythology.

This story is about the artist and art and the balance (or imbalance) between intellect and passion.

It begins:
"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

One a Day

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.

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Literary Quote

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.

Virginia Woolf