Monday, December 13, 2010

Midwest is Young and Restless

Racing in Place by Michael Martone
published by University of Georgia Press
168 pages


I like Michael Martone. I like what he tries to do. Sometimes he fails, but he tries. He tasks risks. Sometimes he can get a little "writerly", a little to "flowerly" with his sentences. But again, he's taking the risk. And I can respect that.

This book is pretty much what it says it is: fragments, collages, ruins and postcards. And a fun drinking game is to chug a beer every time Martone mentions that he grew up in Fort Wayne.

Quotes:

"Despite the confusion about its location, people agree that the Midwest is a good place to be from. It is as if we keep the region purposely vague in order to include as many as people as natives. 'I am from the Midwest': that coin is worth collecting." pg. 97

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our Ridiculous Selves

Earth (The Book) by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show
238 pages
published by Grand Central


If you have read America The Book, you know what to expect heading into Earth The Book. And that's not a bad thing, because America was hilarious and Earth doesn't disappoint. Not as good as America, but very very good.

"For society to flourish, it would take work. So what was work? Tasks we performed for compensation in the service of an employer, be it individual or corporate entity. And yes, it was as exciting as it sounds. We didn't want to work. In fact, that's about as good a definition of "work" as you could have-- 'that which we didn't want to do, but had to, if we didn't want to eat dirt.' Of course, some workers attacked their jobs with passion and creativity. These people were known as brown-nosing jagoffs." pg.128

"We relied on a system of small regular bribes to keep certain sorts of transactions moving smoothly. Tipping 15-20% of the bill encouraged servers to treat customers with something milder than disdain. Tipping was both an acknowledgment of servers' underpayment by management, and a handy excuse for management to continue underpaying them." pg.133

"The only thing that increased more rapidly than the speed of new technology was the speed with which we became irritated at its now relative slowness. Eventually, we developed the capacity to be instantaneously disappointed. This was the final triumph of faster." pg.182

"If necessity was the mother of invention, then laziness was its drunken stepfather. Man created many contraptions to free up as much of his time as possible. This helped us achieve our life's greatest goal: doing nothing." pg.183

"As confident as the human species was that after death, a Higher Power awaited us in an eternal utopia filled with everyone we've ever known and/or virgins, one thing we all feared was death. And although we never quite succeeded in conquering the Grim Reaper, we did manage to confuse and delay him, allowing many of us to enjoy up to twenty extra years of feeble dependence." pg.188

Thursday, November 11, 2010

DeLillo Gets A Fresh Coat of Paint From Picador

In March 2011, Don DeLillo's novels will be re-released with spiffy new covers. Here's a few, just to give you an idea:





Friday, November 5, 2010

Death is the Mother of Beauty

Angels by Denis Johnson
209 pages
published by Harper Perennial

I'm going to devote almost this entire review to Johnson's really just beautiful prose. This is Johnson's first novel and while it took a while to get going, the last half of the narrative (where one character is an mental institution, the other on death row awaiting the gas chamber) is probably the best stuff I've read in a long time.

"She snuck over to Sarah's to borrow the gun and there he was, sneaking home, out of Sarah's trailer with the door creaking so loud in the quiet she took it for herself, screeching, Bill, and he saw, and she saw, and Sarah in the doorway with her panties saw, so everyone knew that everyone else knew what was what with who." pg.15

"Freed of negative energies, he moved easily toward solutions." pg.89

"He felt like a grownup in a room full of children playing with toy cars. To get them to see who he was involved tearing them out of a tiny exclusive world of their own creation." pg.162

"He knew a rush in his veins--he felt their need baked into these walls--and he wanted to make himself a sacrifice and his death payment for something more than his stupid mistakes. If Brian could promise him he'd make the crucial difference for somebody, he would walk through the door and be slaughtered here and now." pg.174

"He couldn't believe he'd actually been asleep. All night he had lain with the Unmade, with God, the incredible darkness, the huge blue mouth of love. I'm going to be turned into space. This is the hour of my death." pg.204

Chris Ware is One of The Greatest Artists Alive

Acme Novelty Library #20 by Chris Ware
72 pages
published by Drawn and Quarterly

Another addition to the world of Rusty Brown! This time we learn about Jordan Lint. Lint was introduced in the first Rusty Brown volume as a school bully.

This new story line follows Lint from birth to death, with each page representing a specific time in his life. The narrative and art work also represent each developmental, with the first few pages visually representing the world as a baby would see it and then as a toddler, a small child, a pre-teen, a teenager, etc. As the story progresses, the artwork and narrative become more and more complex, a la Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by Joyce.

Ware pushed himself to experiment a little with this work and it worked out beautifully. If you have never had the pleasure of reading Chris Ware, you better get started.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Genocide? What Genocide? Have some tea and cake.

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
308 pages
published by Random House

This is the latest selection for our book group at the book store where I work. I led the group this month, so obviously, I had to read the book. Well, it wasn't terrible but it was pretty bad.

This is a debut from Parkin, who grew up in South Africa and has done lots of volunteer type work, teaching, and other good stuff. But a fiction writer she is not. The story centers around Angel, the resident cake baker for this UN type compound in Kigali, Rwanda. Various characters come to her to order cakes, tell her little stories about why they want the cake and maybe give a little snippet about their horrible lives in terms of surviving genocide, AIDS, poverty, et al. You'd think this would be pretty riveting stuff but in Parkin's hands, it all falls flat. The dialogue is super stiff and polite and every statement is met with the proper response, for example, "How are you today," she asked. "I'm lovely, thank you for asking. And you?" "Eh, I've been better." "Oh, what is the matter?" and so on. That is not verbatim but it's not far off. The main narrative isn't really any better. And the plot device was repetitive (customer comes to order cake, Angel listens to their story, x12).

And since the story takes place mostly on this isolated apartment complex which has its own guard, you get the sense that this isn't exactly an accurate portrait of modern Rwanda, post genocide. It's a little too sunny and everything has a silver lining and the book even ends with a triumphant wedding. It's kinda like watching Disney's Aladdin and thinking, "So that's what the Middle East is like!"

Parkin tries to touch upon some serious issues (AIDS, genocide, homelessness, female genital mutilation, feminism, prostitution, corporation, race, education, traditional African marriages) but they are more less mentioned in passing and not fully explored.

Now, the rest of the book group almost completely disagreed with me. They enjoyed the "light hearted" tone and outlook of the main character. They felt that this was a nice change for a book about Rwanda, to show that it's not all bad there and that people have happy lives. Sure. Fine. I'm just saying Parkin didn't do a good job with that premise. Maybe if the setting had been more indicative of Rwanda as a whole it would have worked. The book group, all middle-aged women, said I didn't "get it" because I'm a man. Please.

Why can I write so much more about the books I don't like than the ones I do?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Immigrant Song

Vida by Patricia Engel
182 pages
published by Black Cat


Vida is a hard nut to crack. Engel is clearly influenced by Junot Diaz, whom she gives a shout out to in her acknowledgements and Diaz also blurbs the front cover. That's pretty much why I read it, because this is the debut Diaz had been waiting for, apparently. But this influence comes off as more imitation than her own solid voice but then again, it is a debut and Engel is still finding that voice.

Moderately recommended though nothing new in terms of moving Latin American immigrant fiction forward, not to pigeon hole her stuff but I mean, that's what it is...at least right now.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Boring Serial Killer?

Bound by Antonya Nelson
240 pages
published by Bloomsbury USA

A mother, Misty, dies in a car accident (possible suicide?), leaving behind a teenage daughter (Catherine or Cattie), who is now the legal obligation of the mother's childhood friend, for whom the daughter is named. This childhood friend, again, also named Catherine, must decide whether to take responsibility for this new child in her life, which generally forces her to wander back into her past, in Kansas, a past which she never really left in the first place. And then there's this serial killer who goes by the name BTK (Bind Torture Kill) who was at large during Catherine and Misty's childhood in Wichita and apparently he has resurfaced in the present day.

Mr. BTK isn't really a force in the novel as he is a ghost, just off stage. I was kinda hoping that he'd play a bigger role and at times I feel like he was just used as a big tease and that Nelson wanted to use him as an Idea rather than an actual character. So, I was disappointed in terms of no actual confrontation, kinda like the whole Chekhov thing with the gun introduced in the first act, etc. The gun never goes off in this book. Like I said, I think the whole "serial killer" device was used to sell the book, or the plot. I mean, I read it hoping to see some blend of literary fiction/suspense thriller type book.
And you know, now that I state all this out loud, I'm sure Nelson did the "BTK serial killer off stage" thing on purpose, using him only as a metaphor for the past and how it can "bind" us, trapping us in a way, from moving forward, and certainly "toture" us, and even "killing" us, emotionally. But for whatever reason, it didn't really resonate with me. Maybe because the characters pasts didn't seem that interesting.

Nelson's style and voice are a bit bland at times. Or maybe I feel like I've been reading very similar voices, a la Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. All are great writers, though not doing anything particularly interesting with language or structure or even plot. But they get the job done.

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book, Vol. 35

zaftig- (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ask the Optimist!

The Braindead Megaphone: Essays by George Saunders
272 pages
published by Riverhead

George Saunders sure can write a great essay. His fiction is better, but these sure ain't bad either. Funny and compassionate as hell. My favorites were when he went to Dubai and toured the luxury hotels, the one with Ask the Optimist is really just astounding, and the one where he goes to visit the Buddha Boy in Nepal.

Quotes:

"Man, it occurs to me, is a joyful, buying-and-selling piece of work. I have been wrong, dead wrong, when I've decried consumerism. Consumerism is what we are. It is, in a sense, a holy impulse. A human being is someone who joyfully goes in pursuit of things, brings them home, then immediately starts planning how to get more. A human being is someone who wishes to improve his lot." pg.30

"The story, then, can be seen as a series of repetitions of one event: the reader leaves a little gas station at high speed, looking to the next one." pg.179

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Use Well Thy Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
562 pages
published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

I almost feel bad for Jonathan Franzen. It's not his fault Freedom was hailed as an American masterpiece before anyone even had a chance to read it. He writes a book, then he goes over it with his editor, and then the publishing, marketing machine takes care of the rest, launching his status into the ever hyperbolic atmosphere. Again, not his fault. Is he enjoying the praise and attention? Probably. But also, probably not. How can he possibly live up to this standard that critics, fans, and Oprah have set for him?

Well, the short answer is he can't. I tried my best to steer clear of most reviews, positive and negative, before reading Freedom. I had read The Corrections about five years ago and had enjoyed it. Having just finished my undergrad, it was one of the first novels I had read that wasn't assigned to me by a professor. And I had just ended a long, rather volatile relationship and I was desperate to escape into something. The Corrections worked. I read it over the course of several nights. Pretty much devoured it. Best book ever? No, not really. But I enjoyed it, and it re-awakened a love for books I hadn't felt since elementary school.

Now, five years, I've probably read 250 books (give or take) since The Corrections. I feel a bit more confident in my criticism and reader abilities. I know what I like (for the most part), I know what I don't like (for the most part), and I can defend my opinions (for the most part).

Again, I was oddly transfixed by Freedom. I read it in about five days. This is not to say I really liked it. The speed in which I read a book doesn't always correlate to my pleasure. I guess it says that Franzen's prose is very readable. Some people say lyrical...or that he's a great stylist, but that stuff doesn't mean anything really. Those are just nonsense words to me. But I'm confused by Freedom. It's not as good as everyone seems to think it is, but it's also not as bad either. I guess the conclusion I came to, after having read The Corrections and Freedom, is that Franzen is a slightly-better-than mediocre writer. And trust me, I'm not trying to be mean. I've given this a lot of thought, probably more than it warrants, and he's a good writer, but his work doesn't do anything for me in my gut.

Notes of Discontent: Patty's "autobiography", which we are led to believe is in fact written by Patty, is so clearly the voice of Franzen, that well...it's hard to put that aside. Patty's "voice" sounds like the rest of the novel. Franzen's prose is nothing special. I usually end up scrawling down a sentence or more when I'm reading a book because I like the way the author said this or that, or presented an interesting idea, etc. I didn't write done a single sentence from Freedom. As such, I felt the book was about 200 pages too long. When the language and ideas are beautiful and interesting, I don't mind chewing through the pages (i.e. Infinite Jest). But much of the narrative just felt unnecessary at times.

Notes of Contentment: Freedom ends on a rather "happy" note, with most things wrapped up nicely. This is pretty brave of him and I'm sure he'll catch a lot of grief for that from his "open-ended", post-modern buddies. It's nice to see that not every literary novel has to end in a fragmented and ambiguous manner.

Franzen doesn't deserve the disgusting amount of praise but he also doesn't deserve the malicious attacks (I'm looking at your B.R. Meyers). The attacks are just so clearly a reaction to the over-the-top reviews. As a reader, we can't take them seriously because they mostly reek of jealousy. Because what if Franzen's work didn't garnish so much attention? What if he worked in moderate obscurity? Would those reviews be so venomous?

In summation, I have this to say about Freedom: Meh.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book: Vol. 18

Cicatrix- a scar; a mark left by the healing of injured tissue

Thursday, September 30, 2010

To Live Forever In An Endless Loop of Unreality

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Ruth L.C. Simms
103 pages
published by NYRB Classic

Fleeing from Johnny Law, a fugitive finds himself on a mysterious deserted island with ghost-like inhabitants. If you don't want to know what's really going on, stop reading right now. Ok. I warned you. These ghostly inhabitants turn out to be a kind of "projection", produced by a machine, invented by a man named, you guessed it, Morel. This machine recorded these actual people some time ago on this island, kind of capturing their souls, to be played on a loop for, theoretically, eternity, thereby making these group of friends immortal.

All the while, before this whole machine projection plot is revealed, our narrator and fugitive has fallen in love with one of the projections! Short story short, the fugitive manages to manipulate the machine enough so as he is recorded into the loop, giving the appearance that him and his new love are in fact, in love. So now he can and her can live together forever, in a manufactured reality.

Borges seems to think this is the perfect story, though him and Casares were like bff, so you can't really trust that opinion. Regardless, it was a great story, if not a little confusing towards the end. An existential-science-fiction type love story thing. Also, apparently, it was very important to the screenwriters of LOST during the fourth season. At least that's what a Google Image search of "the invention of morel" revealed:





Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Let's Get Lost

Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles by Kira Henehan
256 pages

published by Milkweed Editions

Pretty much every review of this novel I've read (professional and otherwise) has had two things in common: they (1) have no idea what is really going on plot wise and (2) this doesn't really bother them. I second that motion. I had a tenuous grasp of the happenings from page to page and by the end, surprisingly, I didn't really mind that I was lost in this absurd, shrimp and gravel-filled world. Also, it's pretty darn funny. Also, the book jacket is a little "hip-young-adult-chick-lit", but that ain't her fault.

Kira is a "friend" of mine on Goodreads.com. So there is bias. Deal with it.

Check out reviews of Orion... at Bookslut, The Believer, and The Millions.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book: Vol. 1

Soughing- to make a moaning, whistling, or rushing sound (of the wind in trees, the sea, etc).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bowling With A Severed Head

Black Flies by Shannon Burke
184 pages
published by Soft Skull Press

This is some dark stuff. Burke (who worked as a paramedic in Harlem during the early 1990s) documents the life of a rookie paramedic in Harlem during the 1990s. Write what you know, right? He (the main character, Cross) shows up all wide-eyed and hopeful, medical textbook tucked under his arm, thinking he's going to save the world, or at least this neighborhood. It's pretty much a rapid decent into the heart of darkness from the opening pages though, and we watch the horrifying hardening of Cross as the day in and day out of being a thankless (in most cases, cursed at and abused) paramedic in a economically depleted district where you (the paramedic) become a punching bag for all the wrongs the world has wrought.

All the crazy little medical episodes keep the pages turning (like the title of this post, where one particularly cruel and calloused medic has a proud posed picture of himself holding the severed head of a 14 year old girl, pretending to line it up and aim at a rack of 40s at the end of an alley), if only out of disbelief. And as a reader, you pray that half these stories aren't true, but deep down, you kinda know that isn't the case. I mean, I don't use the word "shocking" a lot, just because I guess I'm not easily shocked, but this novel is shocking, as in jarring, as in powerful, as in made my soul shrivel. Yeah.
Also, bad ass cover right? So simple.

Quotes:

"The entire landscape of your life will become the rundown neighborhoods, the neglected, the homeless, the insane, the drug addicted, the sick, the dying, and the dead...You'll be a witness to all of the fucked-up shit that's hidden from most of society. You'll be a part of it. And there will come a time where out of frustration, out of despair, out of anger, you'll want to give in to the misery and ugliness. I can't teach you how to act at that moment of temptation, and I can't teach you how to deal with the fallout, either. Because it's not a question of medical training. It's a question of strength. And of good versus evil." pg. 131

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time is a Goon

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
288 pages
published by Knopf

When I checked this out from the library and began reading it, I almost put it down several times. I had heard so many good things about it, from people and blogs and critics I respected. I was skeptical though. I didn't like the cover. I didn't really like the title. And the plot didn't seem that interesting to me. I just imagined it was going to be some kind of bildungsroman thing sprinkled with lectures on punk rock.

Well, let me just say that I'm glad I stuck with it. It took me a little while to get into but after I shed all my preconceived notions, it turned out to a damn fine book. It's doesn't have a traditional narrative arch (thank God) with each chapter devoted to one character, with each story directly, or sometimes indirectly, related to previous chapters and their characters. So it's a little more short-story-ish in format than it is novel. Like a really tight, super connected short story collection. Egan also blends enough satire and literary trickery to keep things fresh and engaging, including an entire section told through a teenagers Power Point journal, which was, oddly enough, way more genuine than I thought possible.

So it kinda ends up being about music, but not in that slightly annoying way (think Perks of Being a Wallflower, think Love is a Mixtape). And time ends up being the goon. And the only reason I didn't like the cover is because I thought it was going to be an annoying diatribe about the death of music and the only real music is punk rock, etc. The cover was misleading. But I'm not gonna stop judging books by them. What would happen if we went back to the age when books didn't have dust jackets? Like it was just the title and author on the spine and that's it? How would those sell in the now heavily image-based consumer culture, where the image is king? Cause now probably like half the reason a customer will decide on one book over the other is because it has a better cover, right? I know I've done it. This all being said, book covers has evolved into this strange art form. I don't know about you, but I think book covers are freakin' beautiful nowadays. But I digress.
So read this book please. I liked it a lot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ruminations on the Essay and Doritos

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson
208 pages
published by Graywolf Press


I've had Monson on my radar for a long time now, probably ever since he wrote Vacationland, which seems like a long time ago and I have a vague recollection of him visiting my college campus for a reading, probably promoting Vacationland. Am I making this up? Not remembering it correctly? Whose to say. Also, I never ended up reading Vacationland, or haven't yet anyway.

So, I was ready to enjoy Vanishing Point. I wanted to love it. I am excited about writers who choose to expand certain forms, in this case, the essay. And while a few pieces were really excellent (like his piece on Doritos and artificial flavors or his eulogy-type thing on the death of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax or his time serving jury duty) the others were a bit too circuitous for my taste, where Monson seemed to be wandering around this essay space he had created, not quite sure how he was going to write himself out of this subject he found himself in, which more often than not, were meanderings on the 'I' of memoirs. I think I could have appreciated the dissection if it had just been one essay on the 'I' but Monson kept coming back to it again and again, to the point where I didn't care anymore. But that's just me (well, it's always just me) and that subject didn't particularly catch my thinking fancy.

I'll definitely read more Monson though. Vanishing Point is certainly on the experimental side, which I'm down with, but I'd like to read some of his more "traditional" stuff. And his poetry. Also, I will now try and stop using a 'double space' after the ends of sentences. I forget why exactly, but he touches on it briefly, something to do with Courier font and how it made the formatting all weird and so they (I don't know who they is) had to implement the 'double space', which really isn't needed with other fonts, and if you'll notice, books don't use the 'double space'. But now that I've taken a brief moment to do some research, a la Wikipedia, they say that the 'double space' has been carried over from type writers, when the ink ribbon would get would too dry and the period could sometimes not be seen clearly at the end of a sentence, so the writer would just use a double space to indicate the start of a new sentence.

Oh man, I totally forgot to mention the website! Along with the print reading experience, various words throughout the text have a small dagger as an indicator to go onto the books website, input the indicated word into a search engine, and then a digression (or any other various thing) pertaining to that word will appear. Kinda like web-based end notes. I was not always near a computer when I was reading the book, so I only used the site a few times, but it was a cool idea nonetheless. Though I usually read books to get away from computers.

Fragmented knowledge!
Quotes:

"But still there is life there, even if in data fragments. All human lives can be described by this esoterica, this collection of descended asterisks. It's only in the tiny that anything matters or exists at all." pg.62

"Some true things are not dramatic. But the minutiae of our existences are. These are facts, friends, all twenty thousand boxes of our lives of eating them. We are surrounded by their ordinary glory." pg. 164

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Franzen and Oprah Kiss and Make Up and It Gets Me Thinking About Art in America and Batman

Tomorrow, Friday, Oprah will announce that her new (possibly last) selection for her book club will be Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. You may recall that Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, was also chosen as an Oprah Book Club Selection, but due to some poorly chosen words by Franzen that were largely taken out of context, he was uninvited to appear on the show, due to what Oprah deemed, his "conflicted" feelings.

There's a large, weird part of me where I want the stuff (I'm going to say "stuff" and not "art") I enjoy, whether it be music, movies, books, whatever, to remain mine, to remain secret, in the most selfish and childish sense. It's a suspended reality, this illusion of ownership. But also, at the same time, I want to expose people to this same stuff, to push it on others, convince them of its worth, and to cheer for its much deserved, wider recognition.

So, it gets tricky, because we believe that what the masses enjoy can't be good, that the mass culture is stupid and enjoys stupid things like Two and A Half Men and James Patterson and The Black Eyed Peas. But what happens when art is both good and adored by the mass population? Can Real Art withstand popularity? Withstand recognition? Withstand the machine of consumerism? Because, of course, the fear (by me and others like me...though don't say snobs because that is not the right word) is that this popularity will A) dilute the art, turning it into a product of sorts and B) change the artist, for the worse. Always for the worst.

Franzen is not a secret. I realize that. But he's still in the "respected writer" camp, though some still think him a pretentious, untalented stooge. But I think we (you know who you are) need to re-evaluate our notions of Art and Mass Culture because the two are merging, at least here in America. I suppose they've always been merging, or advertising companies have been trying to merge them since who knows when. But it seems to me that the merge has sped up in the last, let's say ten years. I guess I'm thinking of things like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. Of the recent fame of Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy. Of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Of the rise of bands like The Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and "indie rock" in general, for better or worse.

Don't get me wrong, most entertainment enjoyed by the masses is terrible and mostly because it's not trying to be more than entertainment. You're not about to catch me watching an episode (are they called episodes?) of The Bachelor(ette). But I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's okay to enjoy art that a lot of other people also enjoy. I'm saying this to myself and to people like me. Those who generally scoff at mass culture (not necessarily "pop culture", that's a bit different and tends to be more interesting), instinctively offering a snide, irony-soaked remark on what is popular, cutting it down merely because it is popular. Because popular things can't be any good, right? Right?!

Well, now I'm not so sure. There are some conflicting examples and ideas in this post, I acknowledge that but I just wanted to get the thoughts brewing and I don't really feel like going back and cleaning it up. I mean, come on, it's the Internet.

Things I Enjoy That Also Happen to Be Very Popular:

  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Miller High Life
  • Modern Family
  • the NBA
  • Arby's Roast Beef Sandwiches (mostly because of the Arby's sauce)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Satisfied Mind

Stoner by John E. Williams
278 pages
re-published by The New York Review of Books Classics


Huh. Ya know, I didn't know if I was going to like this novel. I tend to have a hard time getting into "period" novels, which this kinda is, taking place from about 1891 to 1950s. But it's a testament to John Williams and his storytelling abilities that he was able to take a simple story about a passionate, though ultimately ordinary, English professor named William Stoner and turn it into an compelling (yes, compelling) tale of a life fully lived...or at least attempted.

Pretty much everyone on The Millions (.com) is in love with this novel and it's been called "the perfect novel" by more than a few respectable literary types. Perfect? Well, I don't really even know what that means. Is there some sort of Perfection Checklist for the novel? Entertaining. Check. Clear, fluid, and often gorgeous prose. Check. Funny. Check. Sad. Check. Main Character is dignified and near heroic in his quiet struggles, though also we can't help but feel a little sorry for him. Check. Holy shit. It is the perfect novel!

But seriously, it was pretty awesome. I don't think there was a single scene, or a single page, where I checked out mentally and started thinking about what I was going to make for dinner or whether or not I should play Batman Arkham Asylum on the XBox360 before bed. I cared about William Stoner. I cared about his small, human plight. I wanted Stoner to die (as we knew he would by the first page) happy. And I believe he did.

Take the time to read the below quotes to get a taste of aforementioned 'gorgeous prose'. There, I made it through the entire review without making a lame pot joke.

Quotes:

"He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember ." pg. 181

"They [Stoner and his daughter] talked long into the night, as if they were old friends. And Stoner came to realize that she was, as she said, almost happy with her despair; she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become. He was glad she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink." pg. 248

"On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs, and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything-- the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars-- seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness. Then, behind him, a radiator clanked. He moved, and the scene became itself...He walked slowly home, aware of each footstep crunching with muffled loudness in the dry snow." pg. 180

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Short and Sweet

AM/PM by Amelia Gray
144 pages
published by Featherproof Books

Read this on a recommendation from...someone. I can't remember. I think I just read a lot of good things about it and I am easily swayed by exaggerated praise. Little stories that are sometimes precious, sometimes bizarre, sometimes daring, sometimes clever, sometimes bewildering, sometimes funny, sometimes connected, sometimes not. Delightful, for the most part. Though, I would say you have to read it in one big gulp or else you'll be even more lost than you most certainly will be. Huh?

On the Road...Now With Murder!

Going Native by Stephen Wright
320 pages
published by Delta



Click on Stephen Wright and Goodreads.com has a nice bio on the dry comic, Steven Wright. This is not the same Stephen Wright. At first, I was like, "Wait, the dry ironic comic Stephen Wright wrote several works of post-modernish fiction?" Well, no, he didn't, and he spells his name "Steven" not "Stephen". Now that we got that out of the way.

Most reviews reference this as a "horror" type novel, and even DeLillo calls it a "slasher classic". I guess. It didn't strike me a particularly violent novel. Well, it kinda was but most of the violence was off stage. But I must say, the second to last chapter was rather chilling.

So it's a road novel, in that we're (the reader) are following the trail of Wylie, a wandering suburbanite, who up and leaves his bbq one night and, as we're led to believe, kinda goes on this killing spree of sorts, though several times throughout the novel, you (the reader) begin to question if this is even Wylie you're reading about. And if not Wylie, then who is this psycho?


Quotes:

"But you [America] make a cartoon of everything: your movies, your clothes, your furniture, your books, your food, but especially your sex. Everything bright and tasty. But this is a dirty game you are playing with yourselves. This ideal of honesty and openness is a pathetic fraud. You pretend to be so innocent when none of you are and it is this charade that is genuinely pornographic." pg.146

"The momentary lull between driver and passenger transgressed by the inexhaustible exertions of Pastor Bob launching a possibility bomb into Satan's stronghold in Chillicothe, Ohio, where a sister in need required an emergency financial healing." pg. 89 (Look Perrys! Your hometown!)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Overcoming Solipsism in the Work of David Foster Wallace

Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell
310 pages
published by the University of South Carolina Press


I read David Foster Wallace for many reasons, really too many to name here. But chief among them is how his work challenges me as a reader, making me feel smarter and actually making me smarter, and by smarter I mean both in the traditional sense but also smarter as in more aware, of the world around me, of the people in this world. His ability, through his language, to make me feel a little bit less alone in this modern world.

Marshall Boswell has done DFW fans like me a great service. Just when I think I am starting to figure out the many, many complexities of DFW's fiction, Boswell comes along and says, "You think you know but you have no idea." Ok, maybe that was the tag line for MTV's Diary, but still, it applies.

In Understanding David Foster Wallace, Boswell goes through all of Wallace's published fiction (The Broom of the System, Girl With Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) and pretty much dissects the narrative, all without boring the reader. Well, he didn't bore me anyway. But seriously, if you've ever read any of Wallace and thought to yourself, "There's something here I'm not quite getting, I know there's more behind this, etc," then Boswell is the man for you. He explores Wittgenstein's language games in Broom, he highlights the many parodies, criticisms, and declarations of Girl With Curious Hair (Did you know 'Little Expressionless Animals' had to do with John Ashbery's 'Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror'?).

Of course the best chapter is on Infinite Jest, and the more I read about that massive "novel" (I use quotes because it's more than a novel), the more I want to go back for a second reading. Wallace was responding to French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan's "bewilderingly difficult theories about desire, pleasure, subjectivity, and infantile preoccupations with mothers"? But that's also another great thing about Wallace, is that he does all this stuff below (and not so below) the surface, but you can enjoy his fiction just as good story telling, or amazing use of language, or or or or. You don't have to know Lacan's theories to enjoy Infinite Jest. Hell, I didn't even know who Lacan was let alone that Wallace was responding to his theories.

This is all to say that Boswell does an amazing job adding to the growing realm of Wallace Studies, and we've got to give him credit for being one of, if not the first to recognize Wallace's depth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

But in the Secret Court of Men's Hearts

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
323 pages
published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Like most, I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in high school (or was it junior high?). Again, like most, I thought it was kinda boring. Just more "important literature" I was supposed to be reading and studying and answering multiple choice questions in regards in its subject matter. Answer the following: Racism is A) Good B) Bad C) Inevitable D) Racism? What Racism?!

Revisiting the text as an adult (well, a certain stage in my adulthood), I was obviously more aware of the subtleties of the story I most assuredly missed when I was younger, and also, kinda annoyed with some of the not-so-subtle, bashing-me-over-the-head-type morality lessons.

One of the things that interested me the most the second time around, and which I don't remember much discussing in (junior?) high school, is the role of Scout as unreliable/wildly inconsistent narrator. So we have Scout, the narrator, who is clearly looking back on the events of her childhood as an adult, narrating the story as a grown women. But. The narration itself is more or less told from the perspective of Scout the Child, not Scout the Adult Looking Back on Being a Child. Or I should say, sometimes it is told from the perspective (naivete, innocence, and general lovable childlike-ness) of Scout as Child, and other times it's told as Scout as Adult Looking Back on Being a Child (understanding, wisdom, etc). And sometimes the two even mesh, with Scout as Child using astoundingly advanced diction (she's like 7, 8, 9 years old in the course of the book). Now, I recognize that Scout is very smart, mostly because Atticus is very smart and took time to read to them, teach them, etc. But still. Her vocabulary at times is just not very believable.

Anyway, it's not really a flaw, because I imagine Miss Lee and her editor certainly saw this "narrative problem", but it makes for interesting discussion, in terms of how much can we trust Scout as Narrator? Because if this is an adult narrating the story, it makes it a very different novel than if it were a child (as it is generally accepted it is, narrated by a child that is). Adults manipulate narrative, especially ones they're personally involved in, skewing certain events, maybe bringing things together in black and white terms where maybe they don't exist. Making themselves (and the ones they love) come off in a better light than maybe they were originally cast.

It was interesting reading a little bit of the criticism surrounding the book. It seems that not everyone loves this "modern American classic." Flannery O'Connor thought it was fine as young adult novel but shouldn't be read otherwise. Some critics thought the black characters in the story were underdeveloped (which they were) and Calpurnia was cast as the "contented slave". Attitus comes off as "stiff and self-righteous". Scout is a "highly constructed doll". And other stuff like that. To which I respond: You have a point.

Also, a few studies have concluded that white students respond more positively to the text, while black students find it "demoralizing" and view it ambivalently.

"...Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men's hearts Atticus had no case." pg. 275

Friday, August 13, 2010

No, Seriously, You Haven't Read Anything Like This

BodyWorld by Dash Shaw
384 pages
published by Pantheon


So, there's this sex, drugs, and rock n roll botanist who is doing "research" in Boney Borough, a kind of future utopia community. This botanist is basically just Professor Drug Addict, looking for the next crazy high via plant life. And this utopia, this Boney Borough, is...well, it's a strange place. And Professor Drug Addict discovers this new plant-drug which allows the drug user to experience true empathy, as they briefly "become" who ever they encounter while high. But...well, I don't want to reveal too much. Any more plot detail would give too much away. But I will say it involves aliens.

The art work is pretty crazy and I can tell Shaw had a fun time with the not only the medium, but with colors. And it seems like his imagination just kinda puked on the page, and I mean that as a compliment. Worth checking out, if you're down for some craziness. Oh, also, it's pretty dang funny.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Don DeLillo Interview


Check out this new interview with Don DeLillo over at the Guardian, as he talks about his new book, Point Omega, and generally just says awesome things about fiction.
Also, this dude over at the Huffington Post rates and skewers the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Jerzy Kosinski May or May Not Be A Complete Fraud (But Do You Really Care?)

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
148 pages

published by Grove Press

The literary career of Polish born author, Jerzy Kosinski, is a strange one. He is widely considered a significant writer of the 20th century, his honors and awards are many...oh and he was regularly accused of plagiarism and fraud which indirectly (or directly) led to his suicide in 1991. So, there's that.

Steps won the National Book Award in 1969 which kind of surprised me to hear because it is some dark stuff. Tales of intense violence, sexual "perversion", and moral ambiguity fall from the narrators mouth in small black chunks. We're led to believe that the "I" in each vignette is the same "I" as the narrator. Our unnamed narrator (who regularly "frauds" people into thinking he's someone he's not) is if nothing else, a great storyteller. Even as I grimaced with each new story, even dreading the next page at some moments, I felt compelled to continue. Whether or not Kosinski was a fraud (whatever that means in the art world), this sinister little book will test your soul.

Quotes:

"All we could do was exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self." pg. 24

"Then, all you need me for is to provide a stage on which you can project and view yourself, and see how your discarded experiences become alive again when they affect me. Am I right? You don't want me to love you; all you want is for me to abandon myself to the dreams and fantasies which you inspire in me. All you want is to prolong this impulse, this moment."
pg. 131

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Bought New Books!

I don't buy books very often, mostly just because I can't afford them right now. As mentioned in a previous post, I'm kinda a library junkie. But every once in a while, usually around my birthday, I'll get an influx of new books. Here's what I picked up on a recent gift card spree:

Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson- I've been meaning to read this for a long time, pretty much because David Foster Wallace adores it.






Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (trans. by Lydia Davis)- Seems like something any serious reader should read, and I'm heard only good things about this translation by Davis.





Racing in Place (Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins) by Michael Martone- I've read some Martone before and I'm pretty excited about this "collection".






The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor- Kind of essential reading for aspiring writers.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boy Meets (Dead) Girl


Waste by Eugene Marten
116 pages
Ellipsis Press


Huh. Okay. Weird. But cool. But what happened at the end there? Huh. Okay.

I mean, it's a pretty dark little book. Everyone seems to be saying it's like the creepest stuff they've ever read...and it is pretty sick, but not totally like "I can't finish this book" sick.

Boy meets girl, boy secretly loves girl, girl smiles at boy but is otherwise aloof to his longing, boy finds girl dead in dumpster, boy rolls girl up into a carpet remnant, boy takes girl home, boy preserves girl in his fridge and occasionally spoons her in bed, boy has sex with girl, and they all live...well, it does not exactly end well for either of them. Classic love story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Resurrecting History as Fiction


The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
292 pages
Published by Riverhead Books (Penguin)


Well, I finally got around to reading the much talked about Aleksandar Hemon, a native of Sarajevo, and adopted son of Chicago. This much lauded work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award waaaaay back in 2008, seemed like the logical place to start. And to be honest, I can't say I was crazy about it. I liked it, I did, but there was something about Lazarus's story that I really couldn't get into. I guess, ultimately I didn't really care about Lazarus or his grieving sister Olga, or even the whole situation they had found themselves in.

One of the redeeming qualities of the book was the story of Brik, a young writer, very similar to Hemon in background and vocation, who is struggling to write a book about Lazarus Averbuch, a book for which he has recently received a grant to fund his research. So it's got that meta-post-neo-playful-neat-clever plot set up going, which I usually find enjoyable, used in capable hands, as Hemon is more than capable. The story see-saws between Brik's misadventures with his old friend Rora, as they make their way through war torn Eastern Europe, and then with the story of Lazarus and his sister, Olga, who is trying to make sense of the bewildering death of her brother. I found myself struggling through Lazarus's narrative, reading his story just so I could move on to Brik's.

The incorporation of photography into the book was also great. I'm definitely interested in reading more of Hemon, but this particular book didn't grab me.

Quotes:

"I may have just done serious damage to my marriage, I said to Rora later on, while we drank the hundredth coffee of the day at the Viennese Cafe. You've never been married, so you don't know, but it is a fragile thing. Nothing ever goes away, everything stays inside it. It is a different reality.
-Let me tell a joke, Rora said...Mujo and his wife, Fata, are in bed. It's late at night. Mujo is falling asleep, and Fata is watching porn: a horny couple, all silicone and tattoos, is sucking and fucking like there is no tomorrow. Mujo says, C'mon, Fata, turn that off, let's go to sleep. And Fata says, Let me just see if these kids are going to get married in the end." pg. 164

"The more you lose, the more there is to be lost, yet it matters less." pg. 167

"...if you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world- indeed, nowhere is the world." pg. 182

"In the beginning, every war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead." pg. 185-86

"I felt as though I had achieved the freedom of being comfortable with the constant vanishing of the world; I had finally become the Indian on a horse with a branch tied to its tail." pg. 229

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis Kicks David Foster Wallace While he's Down (and by down, I mean tragically dead by his own hand)


A question answered by Bret Easton Ellis during his appearance at the Southbank Centre:

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Bret Easton Ellis: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching…


Being born into a wealthy family in Los Angeles, I don't really expect you to understand the consciousness of the Mid West. Now, to address a few of those DFW criticisms, point by point:

"Pedestrian journalism"- It just seems like you, Bret, are just trying to go against the grain on this one, since his journalism is regularly regarded as moderately ground breaking, original, and just really really good. So that's curious that you think it completely ordinary.

"Stories scattered with that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality"- I guess it's just a matter of someone calling one thing sentimentality and another person recognizing it as an author risking sincere emotion (the risk being that a hip, ironic, postmodern satirist would call said author 'sentimental', god forbid). And this phrase, faux-sentimentality, I'm not sure I even really understand it. So the sentimentality (as you're calling it) in his stories is false? So is it the sentimentality you have a problem with or the faux-ness of the sentimentality? And is false sentimentality an integral part of the Mid-Western landscape? This is new to me, living in the Mid-West as I do.

"Infinite Jest is unreadable."- Well, now I just feel sorry for you because you're missing out. Unreadable? Really? Can I ask you something? Now, don't be offended. But if you happen to commit suicide next week, do you think that there would be an outpouring of affection and praise of your work? Would scholars begin to form 'Ellis Studies', hold conferences based on your life and work? Hmmm. Something to think about, in turns of why Infinite Jest, and all his other work for that matter, will endure and continue to endure for years to come.

Now, I don't necessarily blame Ellis for the harsh words, considering this is what DFW had been quoted as saying about Ellis some time ago, in an interview with Larry McCaffery:

LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?

DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s "American Psycho": it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of "American Psycho" I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.


And I think it's relevant to note that in Wallace's comments about your own work, he comes off as critical but not petty. Clearly he's given a lot of thought to your brand of literature. You just come off sounding like a jerk. Which I kinda imagined you to be anyway.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ask and Your Shall Reprieve


The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
296 pages
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux


What are the tenants of a good story? For me, I mean? Snappy dialogue? Interesting, complex characters? Forward moving plot with a brisk pace? New ideas, observations? Vibrant sentences? Well, all those bullet points apply to The Ask. I had read Subject of Steve a while back and while I liked it, I felt that Lipsyte took me to the edge but never quite delivered. The Ask is the novel I was waiting for him to write. And then he wrote it. And here it is. And I really liked it, a lot. Almost five star liked it. Yeah, I know.

So we have Milo Burke, our protagonist (though I use that loosely) who is, let's admit, a rather pathetic modern man. He is a failed painter(though failure implies trying). He is a failed fundraiser (though not for lack of trying). He is a failed husband (equal parts trying and not trying). The only thing he seems to be good at is being a father, and even that has mixed results. But he loves his son. And his wife. So that counts for something.

After being fired from his fundraising job at Mediocre University, his office requires his services one last time (with the prospect of getting his job back) as one donor with deep pockets is requesting his personal involvement. One big Ask, for one big Give. Turns out this mysterious donor is...well, I won't give too much away.

Lipsyte's sentences and diction are one of a kind, though not always with positive results. It can be a little much, his hype, ironic, satirical wording. I know he is a student of Gordon Lish (I feel like I'm seeing his name every where these days) and I know Lish was big on writing sentences that hadn't been written before, every phrase unique, every word useful. As is my understanding. And you can imagine that can lead to some...curious phrasing. But overall, it works for Lipsyte.

One reviewer said that though the sentences were "dazzling", it was ultimately an "empty story about nothing". Ha! Are you kidding me? About nothing? Wow. Just wow. J-wow.

Quotes: (kinda lengthy ones, but worth it)

"So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world. You're good enough. If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career. Get some shows. Teach. Like me, for instance. I'm not a failure. I'm in a very envied position. You have some big-dick fairy-tale idea of the art world, so you don't understand this yet, but hanging in, surviving, so you can keep working, that's all there is. Sure, there are stars, most of them hacks, who make silly amounts of money, but for the rest of us, it's just endurance, perdurance. Do you have the guts to perdure? To be dismissed by some pissant and keep coming? To be dumped by your gallerist? To scramble for teaching gigs? It's not very glamorous. Is this what you want? You're good enough for it. You're not the new sensation, but you're good enough to get by. But you have to be strong. And petty. That's really the main thing. Are you petty enough? Are you game?" pg. 115-116

"Most of the time he avoided me, or humored me, or peppered me with blandly supportive exhortations. "Keep it up," he might say, or "way to go," apropos of nothing I could discern. Sometimes if I walked into the room he'd just say, "Here comes the kid!" Invariably I'd wheel to catch a glimpse of this mysterious presence. Maybe it was clear to both of us we were never going to understand each other, not because we were complicated people, or even at loggerheads, but because of the minor obligation involved. I really couldn't blame him. I knew what churned inside me. It was foul, viscous stuff. It wasn't meant to be understood, but maybe collected in barrels and drained in a dead corner of our lawn." pg. 149-150

"You're growing up. All you need to remember is that nothing changes. New technology, new markets, global interconnectivity, doesn't matter. It's still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced." pg. 195

"I'm only trying to be a decent dad."
"Don't waste your time. It's not in your genes. Besides, try making some money. That might be a good dad move. For heaven's sake, the system's rigged for white men and you still can't tap in." pg. 77

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Book of Essays on David Foster Wallace


A new collection of essays on the work of David Foster Wallace, called Consider David Foster Wallace, is now available for pre-order. Unfortunately, it's only on Amazon.com for the moment. I'd much rather direct you towards Powell's or Indiebound, but they don't have it quite yet. Support independent booksellers! Or don't! Ultimately it's your choice! That is if you believe in free will! That is if you believe in free will, you believe you are making the choice whether to shop at an independent bookseller! I was not implying that only people who shop at independent booksellers believe in free will! I can see why the wording would be confusing!

Friday, July 9, 2010

I Should Really Just Read The Books I Own


Hello, my name is Schuyler and I'm addicted to library books. I currently have seven books checked out from the local library and another 10 on hold. Despite the fact that I own around 20 books that I have not, as of yet, read, I can't bring myself to read them and stop checking out books from the library. Why? Why can't I just read the books I have already and check books out when I'm through with those?

I guess it all started when I decided to quit my job about three years ago. I was briefly unemployed, but have since landed a part time position at a small, independent bookstore which requires me to take two buses. This job does not pay very well, but I get a lot of reading done on the commute and while working. I'm a good employee, there just aren't many customers. It's not like I'm slacking off. In fact, the owner wants me to read on the job, as to be an informed staffer. Anyway.

As a result, my funds are limited. I acknowledged that I could no longer capriouslessly spend money on books. But I still wanted to be reading books, new books, talked about books, the new hot literary gem, etc. So, the compromise I made was taking advantage of the local library system: the Chicago Public Library.

And let me tell you, the CPL's catalog is extensive. I can get near anything my heart desires, that is if I'm willing to wait for it, because I habitually place books (and recently DVDs!) on hold, books that need to be sent to my local branch. I don't mind waiting. It gives me time to finish the books I already have checked out.

I check out way more books than I can read. Often I'll have a stack of five, maybe eight books on my desk, far more than I could read before the due date. Some books I don't even really want to read, I just wanna browse through them, see if I'm interested. That's what the library is for, right? Also, I find it's a challenge: I try to read as many of the library books as I can before the due date. I find that the months I check out a bunch of library books are the months I read the most.

But like I said, I have many many books I already own that I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. I very much want to read these books. I own them for a reason. They are what I would consider "good" books. Maybe some even "great" books. But lately I find myself in a bit of an imbalance. For every book I read that I own, I read five library books. Something must be explained: I do not like having unread books on my bookshelves. They look at me, mockingly. They haunt me. I want to have bookshelves that I can gaze at and admire my intellect, to say "Yes, I have read all of those books." It is not impressive to say "I've read most of those books." I am not impressed by this. And being impressed is what having people over to my apartment is all about.

I imagine a day when I have no unread books on my shelves. Maybe one or two would be acceptable because it's good to have some on deck. But certainly no more than five. But there is the glorious CPL getting in my way, offering me the latest titles, for free. They ask nothing of me. Browsing their catalog online is like having a shopping spree on Powell's. Kinda. I only really have one tentative rule that I find myself breaking: I won't check out books from the library that I know I want to own. This can be difficult and I've broken it a few times. But I have to be strong. Stronger. I have no remedy for my affliction. I can't stop, won't stop.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review of : The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker


I forget where exactly this was first brought to my attention, maybe on Bookslut, possibly The Millions, maybe Conversational Reading. Somewhere on the internet. But whoever reviewed it loved it, and then it recently won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest monetary award for fiction in english on the planet, with a cool 100,000 Euros. So that's impressive.

This is kinda hard to review because the book is so much about a sense of place, the quiet rhythms of a small Dutch farm, and the atmosphere of solitude that Bakker establishes. The prose is stark I guess, though I hate using that overused adjective. Bare prose? Naked prose? Stark naked bare-ass prose?

Helmer and Henk were twin brothers. Henk died in a car accident, leaving Helmer to "waste" his life on the family farm. The bulk of the narrative picks up 30 years later, after the Mother has passed, and the now elderly Father is rapidly declining, health wise, requiring Helmer to both care for the farm and for his emotionally cold Father. Then Riet, Henk's would be fiance, contacts Helmer and wonders if her unruly teenage son (though not by Henk) could come and live and work on the farm for a time. Also, the son is also named Henk and is about the same age as of the original Henk, when he died. I know this sounds kind of confusing, but Bakker does a better job than I am doing right now.

It ultimately turns into a story about Helmer trying to understand his role in life without his twin. Who is Helmer? Who is Helmer is relation to his loveless Father? To Riet? To the farm? These all seem like big existential type questions that might appear daunting, but they aren't out rightly pondered (though kinda but in sweet, subtle ways) by Helmer, so it makes for this still, almost nostalgic reading, though nostalgic for what, I'm not quite sure. Nostalgic for solitary Dutch farms I guess.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review of : The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso


It's kinda hard to review memoirs because you're criticising people's lives, and it's doubly hard to review memoirs where the author went through something rather tragic or horrific or just plain sad, and then to turn around and be like, "Um, your life story was interesting but you did a bad job telling it."

All this being said, Manguso did a pretty good job with a difficult subject: her young life lived in a hospital. In her early 20s, Manguso discovers that within her blood a battle is raging (too much? that's too dramatic), a rare disease called CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy) which basically requires her to swap out her "bad blood" and replace it with "good blood".

I am simplifying of course. Manguso goes into great detail about her medical history, to the point of making me a little queasy, though I'm not good with needles and blood and stuff. I was also reading it riding backwards on a bus, so that may have contributed to the aforementioned queasiness.

The book reads fairly quickly with most paragraphs a few sentences long, so even in her memoir, Manguso's poetic tendencies seep out onto the page in the form of short, clipped sentences and lots of white space.

Understandably, Manguso's life becomes so consumed by her illness that her entire identity is nearly swallowed by it. There is this one sentence that struck me where she details her time living in New York City, "I had the usual adventures people have when they move to New York." I think that sentence is telling because she no longer thinks the "life" portion of her life is important to recount because, to her, they are ordinary and relatable and everyone has the same experience when they go to New York City. Which of course is not true but these moments in her life don't make her feel special. Her rare illness makes her feel unique and while she wants more than anything to be healthy again, she also developed a kind of relationship with her sickness.

At risk of exaggerating, let me compare it to something else: a soldier coming back from a tour in Afghanistan. He/she comes back to civilian life, to maybe a family with a yard and kids and grocery stores and movie theaters and clean bathrooms and I think it's a pretty common fact that those soldiers have a hard time adjusting to "normal" civilian life (think The Hurt Locker) because the past four, five years of their lives have been consumed with war in a foreign land and no one in their life now, as a civilian, can relate to them, and they can't relate to anyone. They feel almost marooned on an island. Or maybe it's like a depressed person, who while hating their depression, also feels that if it was "cured", they would lose a certain part of what made them 'them'. I think Manguso felt this way with her disease, that her suffering (especially at such a young age which added a layer of tragedy, that her youth was also being destroyed) was both something she loathed but also discovered it made her different, that illness became a new kind of normal, a new kind of healthy.

Quotes:

"And then sometimes I think I've made everything happen, starting with making myself be born." pg.22

"The doctor was older than my parents, and he must have had plenty of younger patients, but he didn't understand yet that suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the size and shape of a life." pg. 83-84

"How sure our neighbor was that her suffering was the only kind of suffering. And how sure I was that mine was worse." pg.128

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review of : Point Omega by Don DeLillo


Don DeLillo is melting into himself while some other author slowly emerges from the melty DeLillo puddle. He is delirious with his own talent. He seems to be caught in a metaphysical fever dream in which he imagines himself to be a scribe of thin, existential novel-like things. So there's been The Body Artist. And Cosmopolis. And Falling Man. And Point Omega. Now, where the hell can he go from here? This is where it gets interesting: what will the next DeLillo book look like? Because I'm not sure he can keep dragging us along on this weird trip.

Quotes:

"In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw...To see what's here, finally to look and to know you're looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion." pg.5

"It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at. He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing." pg.13

"...we become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we'll die." pg.17

"I'll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies." pg.28

"Human perception is a saga of created reality." pg.28

"Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field." pg.53

"Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?" pg.55

"I know about your marriage. You had the kind of marriage where you tell each other everything. You told her everything. I look at you and see this in your face. It's the worst thing you can do in a marriage. Tell her everything you feel, tell her everything you do. That's why she thinks you're crazy. You understand it's not a matter of strategy. I'm not talking about secrets or deceptions. I'm talking about being yourself. If you reveal everything, bare every feeling, ask for understanding, you lose something crucial to your sense of yourself. You need to know things the others don't know. It's what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself." pg.66

Review of : Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino


This is my first Sorrentino book and I have to say, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I usually have a hard time getting into period novels (this story taking place in 1939 New Jersey) but this one didn't feel like a period novel. Well, it did and it didn't.

Mostly, Sorrentino is just a master storyteller, employing all the tricks of the trade, but not in a hokey or gimmickry way. The story is told through letters, bits of question and answer type exposition, inner dialogue, and other modes that might feel disingenuous but I never once felt like his techniques were interfering with the narrative. I think that Sorrentino wanted to tell the lives of these four characters and he felt the best way to do that would be from these multiple angles. And he succeeded.

This quote below is great mostly because his father ends of leaving the mother for his secretary and throughout most of the book, you come to understand how much that effected both Billy and the mother, and they pretty much hate the father beyond all measure and this one scene seems to be the only happy moment Billy can manage to conjure up regarding the way things used to be.

"His mother and father turned toward him as he entered and his mother said, 'Your father broke the bed.' At this she began to laugh, putting her hand over her mouth. His father, wagging his finger at her, got up, grabbed Billy in his arms and sat down again with him on his lap. 'Don't believe Mama,' he said. 'She's the one who broke the bed!' Then he began to laugh. Then he shouted, in mock anger that made Billy giggle, 'Pancakes! Bacon! Gallons of coffee! Eggs! Rolls!' His mother reached over and put her hand on his father's shoulder with a tenderness that gave Billy a chill of intense delight. There was, he considered, nothing more wonderful and funny than breaking a bed if you were a mother and father." pg. 17