Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I've Been Reading and Thinking

There's a funny thing that happens to me when I read great literature. I wonder if it happens to anyone else. I become mute. I feel incapable of communicating with other people in any meaningful way. I live in my head and I immerse myself in more literary work that knocks me out. The author who first got to me this way was Marcel Proust, but David Foster Wallace just about finished me off.

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?

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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