Category Hurricane Diaries

Another Year, In the Books: 2012

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“One of the pleasures of middle age — there aren’t many — lies in a growing appreciation for art that is urbane and refined. To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era . . .”

–Michael Dirda

It was another wonderful reading year for me, even if I sometimes feel like I’m an ape who’s trying to mimic the behavior of a cultured gentlereader. I know this isn’t the mode for everyone (esp. those of you who have social lives), but I’m awfully happy I get to live this way. Last year, I chronicled all the books I finished, but used a separate post to discuss 2011′s big reading project, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. I didn’t have a major project this year, so you’re going to get some commentary on everydarnbook on The List. (Speaking of . . .)

As with last year, this writeup doesn’t include comics that I finished. I should note that, while I’ve had Chris Ware’s Building Stories on my desk since late September, I’ve been too . . . intimidated? something else? . . . to start it. Maybe that’ll be the next big read.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 to discuss, so let’s get started!

The Sun Also Rises: I had the thought last January of reading a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I may’ve been a little influenced by that meh Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris. Clearly, not as effective as the way Another Woman turned me on to Rilke, but hey. This time around, I found Hemingway’s prose flatter and less effective than I recalled. Nowadays, we’d chalk it up to writing for a screenplay rather than the printed word, but I guess that wasn’t a consideration back then.

The Learners: A day after that, I was wiped out with the flu. I stayed home from work and started reading The Learners, the sequel to book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. The book follows our lead character, Happy, out of art school and into his first design job in 1961. Bizarrely enough, considering how out-of-it I must have been, I managed to read this book in a few hours. I enjoyed it, mainly for the depiction of Happy’s worklife as a designer in that era (not exactly Mad Men). I wasn’t as interested in the plot, centering on Stanley Milgram‘s authority experiments, but I’m hoping to see a third book from Kidd as Happy finds his way in the world (and figures out his sexuality, the suppression of which is a key component of this and The Cheese Monkeys).

Money: A Suicide Note: A week later, I read Martin Amis’ Money, which I’d heard referred to as his greatest novel. I think London Fields trumps it, but they’re both awfully good. They’re also very difficult for me to recommend to people; Amis’ language is like lightning (at his peak, I think his prose is up there with Nabokov’s), but his characters are almost uniformly unlikeable and normal people seem to care about that. In my podcast conversation with Michael Dirda, we talked about the pleasure principle in reading and criticism. He praised Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, but said it so unremitting and humorless that no one could finish it, and contrasted that with the evil wit of William Gass’ The Tunnel. He made a comment about writing a book in which none of the characters were likable, and I said, “We should ask Martin Amis for tips on that.” That said, it’s an amazing novel, capturing the money-hungry ’80s in New York and London. And it was fun to read the brothel scene that Amis researched with Christopher Hitchens (whose Hitch-22: A Memoir was the close-out to last year’s post). Also, it seems like Alan Moore was cribbing from this when he wrote A Small Killing, a comic illustrated by Oscar Zarate.

Brideshead Revisited: Reading at tangents, I went from Martin Amis to Evelyn Waugh, an influence on his dad Kingsley. I read Waugh’s Scoop in late 2011 (following Hitchens’ recommendation) before moving on to his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited. I had absolutely no idea what this book was about. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a very staid, mannered book. I really wasn’t expecting the ebullience of Sebastian Flyte and, once introduced to him, I wasn’t expecting the Catholic-Anglican conflict between the narrator and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I was happy to have so much of Anthony Powell under my belt before reading this, even though Powell’s prose and story were far less unified than Waugh’s.

Stories of Anton Chekhov: My first great discovery of 2012 was Chekhov’s short fiction (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). I’d apparently read Three Sisters back in my freshman year of college, probably for an acting class, but never got to Chekhov otherwise. I have so many lacunae in my reading, it’s embarrassing. I devoured this collection and will likely get around to his short novels and his plays in 2013. I was floored by the intensity and vividness of his short sketches, like The Huntsman and the seriously creepy Sleepy, while the longest piece in the book, A Boring Story, is an utter masterpiece. I’m in awe of Chekhov.

Tropic of Cancer: Looking back over my list, I honestly don’t remember reading this book for the bajillionth time. I’m guessing I thought it would be a good palate-cleanser, some familiarly gorgeous prose for me to fall back into after being swept up in Chekhov for 3 weeks. It’s also possible I just read too darned quickly sometime. I try not to read for volume, but it happens to the best of us sometimes.

Travesties: I read Tom Stoppard’s play in anticipation of seeing it performed in Princeton. We never got down there, because of work travel or some other excuse, but I was glad to read it. It’s a toughie to characterize, because of the Leninist stuff, the Wildean mode, the slapstick, the dead-end of Dadaism, and more, but I was wowed by the ambition of it, and I’m a sucker for “all these famous figures happened to live in the same place at the same time, so who’s to say they never overlapped?”

Metropole: I read this one on a recommendation in Bookslut. It’s a forgotten novel about a linguistics professor from Hungary on his way to a conference who falls asleep, misses a connection, gets on a wrong airplane, and winds up in a strange city where he can’t understand the language. I had high hopes for this novel, but it draws out the drudgery of the professor’s life in a way that ground my interest into a nub. Going into it, my assumption was that the professor’s experience mirrors that of everyone who travels to Hungary from the west, since their language has virtually no connection to the Indo-European language groups. I spent a full week in Hungary a few years ago and managed to pick up only 5 or 6 words in that time. Anyway, I was hoping for more of the Kafkaesque out of this novel, I suppose, but I can understand how the time in which it was written (1970, during the endless days of the Cold War) dictated the sense of hopelessness that pervades it.

Inherent Vice: A Novel: I bailed on Thomas Pynchon’s last giganto-novel, Against the Day, a year or two ago. I was 50-60 pages into it and concluded that I wasn’t enjoying it and would never get around to finishing it. On a whim, I picked up this shorter novel last spring at a nearbyish new/used bookstore, Well Read. I figured this would be more Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity’s Rainbow. Little did I know it would be most similar to The Big Lebowski. I mean that in a good way. It’s a stoner detective novel set in LA in the ’60s, and the plot doesn’t quite add up, but the atmosphere is what it’s all about. While I was reading it, it struck me that Pynchon generally alternates his novels between “big” and “SoCal”: V. (big), Crying of Lot 49 (SoCal), Gravity’s Rainbow (big), Vineland (SoCal), Mason & Dixon (big), Against the Day (big), Inherent Vice (SoCal). The fact that those last two are out of sequence is clearly the sign that They’re up to something . . .

Coriolanus: Two reasons to take up this one: to prepare to catch the Ralph Fiennes movie version (which I haven’t seen yet), and because I was going to take a trip to Phoenix for a trade show that month and planned to see a Diamondbacks game. See, I try to keep a decent gap between the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve read and the number of MLB ballparks I’ve visited. You know how weird I am, so don’t act like this surprises you. Anyway, the play was minor on the Shakespeare scale, but does help illustrate why military men don’t tend to make good statesmen.

Family Happiness“: I read Tolstoy’s novella in anticipation of a St. John’s College alumni seminar in NYC. Sadly, I could only attend the pre-seminar coffee hour and not the conversation itself, due to a sick dog at home, but I did get to talk with the tutor who was running the show, and she followed up afterward to tell me how it went. It’s Tolstoy and it’s not religious, so you know it’s good. It’s about the ways in which one’s notions of love and romance change the longer one’s in a relationship. In this case, it’s a sad, 19th century version with a younger woman discovering the loss of romance as her marriage progresses. It’s a recurring theme, esp. with great European writers of that era, but it’s so artfully told, even in its inevitabilities, that Tolstoy makes it fresh.

The Living End: This was probably on an off-the-cuff recommendation from Harold Bloom, and was probably the book I least enjoyed in 2012. I stuck with it, violating my maxim, “life is too short for shitty novels,” because it was only 130 pages of large type, but I could’ve given this one a pass. It starts off well, depicting the comic life of a Jewish liquor store owner before he’s murdered in a hold-up. From there, it transforms into a story of how grotesquely unfair the afterlife is, how vengeful God (the scriptural God) is, and why the end of the world can’t come soon enough. It was pretty relentless in its sections in hell, which is the point, I get it, but I just found it an unworthy book, especially after starting off so well. I’ll try one of Stanley Elkin’s other books sometime to see which part was the aberration.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: William Styron’s memoir about depression and suicidal ideation was probably not what I should’ve been reading in a generic hotel room in Arizona during a business trip. Turns out he was having a bad reaction to Halcion. I understand how terrible that is, but when I was having an ugly CNS reaction to an antibiotic I’d been prescribed, it only took 3-4 days for me to realize that that’s what was happening and that my wife and coworkers were NOT actually trying to poison me. Either I’m more self-aware than Styron, or I spent a lot more time than he did reading about adverse events from prescription drugs.

Uncle Vanya: I thought the movie Cold Souls was terrible, but it led me to read Uncle Vanya, so I guess that’s not too bad. More Chekhov, again revolving around the country life and the sense of wasting one’s life in that setting. The only good scene in that Giamatti movie was when he rehearses a scene from the play after having his soul extracted, and attacks it with a joie de vivre totally inappropriate to the tragic setting. Seriously, avoid that movie, but read this play.

Solaris: This was the first Stanislaw Lem book I’ve read. I’d seen the Steven Soderbergh film version, and it was interesting to see how some of the book’s “rules” for the mysterious apparitions were removed or softened for the sake of the drama. Ultimately, I found it a bit too frustrating, in terms of the Macguffin, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing about the ineffability of experience. Just as we can’t understand what Solaris is “thinking,” we also fail to understand those closest to us.

Meditations: I bought Marcus Aurelius’ book after seeing The Silence of the Lambs back in 1992 or thereabouts, and only got around to reading it 20 years later. There were moments when I thought, “Well, it’s kinda easy to adopt Stoicism when you’re the emperor of Rome and not one of its subjects or slaves,” but I figured that was sour grapes. It’s written as self-advice (not self-help), and not all of us are going to address the Roman senate or lead an army, but his lessons, and his general vibe about leading a good life, are pretty useful. I need to reconsider him in relation to all that Montaigne I was reading a few years ago.

Austerlitz: The only W.G. Sebald I read before this year were a few essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. I don’t recall much of that reading, beyond the issue of trying to reconcile the desire for revenge against Germany after the war with leaving children to suffer. Austerlitz is the first of two Sebald novels I read in 2012. I was unprepared for his curious method of writing, that combination of compelling first-person travelogue and not-quite-documentary images, his peculiar mingling of the real and unreal. The story within the novel, which Jacques Austerlitz relates to the narrator, is haunting, in the same way that both characters haunt the Continent in the decades following the war. I bought the rest of Sebald’s novels after this, but his premature death (car accident in 2001) may be the greatest literary loss of our time.

Selected Stories of Flannery O’Connor / Wise Blood (re-read): That brings me to the life-changing moment I had at the beginning of summer. I read a number of O’Connor’s short stories for the 4-day Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College. I wrote about the Piraeus in last year’s write-up, in my entry on Wise Blood (which I re-read before the seminar). O’Connor’s fiction was a grotesque revelation, and would’ve been reward enough, now that I can see her threads weaving through modern American fiction and storytelling, but the long weekend in Annapolis re-energized me, brought a new focus to my reading, introduced me to new friends, and reminded me of the value of The Conversation. (The stories we read for the seminar were Good Country People, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Artificial N*****, Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Lame Shall Enter First, and Parker’s Back. I oughtta read The Violent Bear It Away in 2013.) Check out the podcasts I recorded during that trip with David Townsend and Tom May!

Rabbit, Run: My first Updike. As I wrote on Facebook, “My big hangup was the sheer poetic beauty of the prose and how it didn’t really fit with any of the characters’ perspectives. That is, Rabbit wouldn’t have seen the world as beautifully as the narrative describes it, but the narrative often lapses into the limited perspectives of its characters. It’ll drop into the more immediate tones of Rabbit’s wife, Ruth, or Rabbit himself, and all the gorgeous prose drops away. It felt like Updike was showing off with those more poetic passages, or he didn’t yet know how to integrate that with his characters’ limited visions.” I later expanded on that in a note to a pal of mine, “There are some beautiful sentences in there, but the narrative voice makes little to no sense. Sometimes it’s immediately in the characters’ heads, but it begins making poetic descriptions of phenomena that the characters themselves couldn’t possibly formulate. So it felt like cheating/showing off: ‘I’m going to get inside these characters’ heads, but then I’m going to make intensely beautiful observations because I’ve got a bunch of them in my notebook and want to get them out.’ Presumably, he got better as a writer, but I was shocked by the clumsiness of that first book.” So now you know where I stand. I have the whole Rabbit Angstrom 4-book omnibus, but will I ever get around to those when there are so many other books with more promise?

Housekeeping: I may be the only person who read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead without having read her first novel. Enough people have praised it over the years (including my first podcast guest, Ann Rivera) that I decided to give it a read. They’re right. It’s fantastic. Robinson’s beautiful prose evokes the fragility of home life, the disintegration of family. It also has its roots in Flannery O’Connor, although I’m sure a smarter writer than I could explain how Robinson’s Calvinism leads to a different style than O’Connor’s (southern) Catholicism.

O, How the Wheel Becomes it!: This was another one-day read (“one-evening,” to be precise). It was Anthony Powell’s first novel after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s slight, but it parodies/slags the literary fiction and academia scenes in the UK. And I was happy to see the guy who created X. Trapnel return to goofing on the publishing world.

Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games: Americans and Their Games: I don’t read a lot of nonfiction books; I prefer long-form articles instead. I guess you could count Darkness Visible and Meditations as nonfiction, but this is the first one on the list to deal with a non-memoir subject. One of my fellow Piraeus members suggested I read this book by the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. It’s about the nature of sport, what it says about America and Americans, and, um, numerology. That part only comes up in the final section, but Giamatti sorta ascribes a kabbalistic significance to some of the numbers in baseball. As a whole, the book was a bit dry, in an Aristotelian way, but I enjoyed his reminiscences about playing baseball with his family, as well as the seriousness with which he could approach play.

The Aeneid (tr. Fagles): And this is where I went into overdrive. After that Piraeus weekend at St. John’s, I asked one of my tutors for a mini-curriculum of the Romans. I’d given them short shrift, deriding them as pastiches of the Greeks. Within a few minutes of my return to Annapolis, I realized what an unfair characterization this was. So I started educating myself in Roman literature and history, beginning with Virgil. Y’know what? The Aeneid IS a pastiche of Homer’s two epic poems, but Virgil’s a great enough artist to create something new out of that. The comparison that came to me after finishing the poem was Homer::Virgil as Jordan::Kobe. I don’t think Kobe could have been so successful without having MJ’s history behind him, but he managed to reach some pretty lofty heights once he incorporated that example.

Yeah, the Aeneid is propaganda for the Roman Empire, but Dido’s suicide left me breathless (the retroactive justification for the war with Carthage), Camilla’s Final Hour had one of the funniest images I’ve ever come across (her father, when she was an infant, sent her to safety by tying her to his spear and throwing her across the Amasenus river so he could pick her up after escaping the Volscians), and everybody needs a creation epic, right?

The Stranger (re): I re-read this after finishing the Sartre chapter in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia (coming up soon). I gave Camus’ fiction pretty short shrift over the years, too, ever since making a dumb comment about him back in college. Reading him now, and trying to get an understanding of Algeria, I find him much more compelling. I’m always glad to find out how dumb I’ve been.

I Totally Meant to Do That: This is the first book I read specifically for my podcast, as I was interviewing the author, Jane Borden. It’s an enjoyable memoir about a North Carolina debutante, her transformation into a Brooklyn hipster, and how she came to understand home. Check out the podcast!

The Early History of Rome (Books I-V) / Rome and Italy (Books VI-X): After Virgil, I took up the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome. Seriously, I knew very little about this, so it was both informative and ridiculously entertaining. Livy covers Rome’s founding through 293 b.c. in these books (2 volumes from Penguin). It’s a cliche to say that knowledge of history informs the present, but the transition from kingdom to republic, driven by the growth in inequality between the high-born and the “peasants,” is awfully pertinent. As with all good histories, it’s replete with examples of our unchanging nature, demonstrated by our politics and (including the original story of the aforementioned Coriolanus). I’d put this in my must-read list (and I plan to read the subsequent surviving books in 2013).

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts: It took me four years to work my way through this collection of biographical sketches/essays by Clive James. Finishing this book made me happier/prouder than any other book on the list. It’s about 800 pages long, and here’s the structure: biographical sketch, quotation from the subject, essay by James that may or may not be about the subject. The book focuses on the culture that was destroyed by the great wars and dictatorships of the 20th century, with Vienna as its locus point. James strives to remind us of all that we once had, and was lost. But to describe it like that is to miss the point. This book is an encyclopedia of one of the last cultured men, and its biographical subjects range from Viennese Jews like Stefan Zweig to Coco Chanel to Miles Davis. I read the book sequentially — which means, alphabetically — but it’s really intended to be dipped into anywhere that catches your fancy. My problem is that I’m sure I would have glossed over some interesting sketches/essays had I read it that way. And in fact, the piece that I think provides a key to the whole book is the essay about Paul Muratov, a Russian art historian who is (almost) utterly forgotten. If there’s any one book I’d recommend above all others in this post, it’s Cultural Amnesia. Treat yourself.

The Sense of an Ending: This short Julian Barnes novel was a Kindle loan from my public library. It relies on some really obtuse behavior by a couple of characters in order to keep its mystery going and deliver on its main themes, that memory is unreliable and people can be real pricks in college.

Sea, Swallow Me And Other Stories: This is a short story collection by a guy I knew in college, Craig Gidney. I enjoyed some of them far more than I wanted to, because I am of course jealous of any of my contemporaries who have been able to finish writing anything, much less achieved publication. The book’s firmly in the fantasy genre, and many of the stories come from a gay black male perspective. Having published Samuel R. Delany’s books once upon a time, I didn’t have any squeamishness about that, but I thought you’d like to know. Her Spirit Hovering, about a man who can’t get over his mother, is a blast. (But I really didn’t like the final story, Catch Him By the Toe, which felt like a Twilight Zone / comic book origin story.)

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland: I read Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir in preparation for our podcast interview. Having (his version of) the details of his early life under my belt helped to keep me from falling into any “I’m not worthy!” moments during our talk. Not that Mr. Dirda’s intimidating in person, by any means, but I’ve enjoyed his book reviews and columns for decades and feared I would ask him something like, “Why are you so awesome?” a la Chris Farley with Paul McCartney in that SNL skit. The book was pretty enchanting, even though I hoped for a bit more of the “how I became so awesome” material about his time at the Washington Post, rather than “this was the girl I liked in college,” but I was happy to learn more about someone whose work I’ve dug for so long. Check out the podcast!

The Metamorphoses of Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum): Then it was back to the Romans! As I wrote earlier, there are awful, gaping holes in my reading. It’s one of the main reasons why I read so little contemporary fiction; there are too many great works of the past for me to catch up on. As I look over the list, it seems that, of the 51 books I finished in 2012, only 14 of them (27%) were published from 2000 on, and only 7 came out since 2009. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to Ovid until now. It’s like a kaleidoscope viewing of the Greek and Roman myths, with transformation as the common thread running through them. Does it, like the Aeneid, become propaganda when Julius Caesar gets woven into the end of the poem? Sure, but it’s forgivable, when so many of the other myths are of tribal self-identification. Anyway, it’s a glorious work, and I wish I had read it in my teens, rather than the pulp science fiction and comics I was raised on.

The Good Soldier: Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, an who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.

King Lear (re-read): It was a re-read for seminar at St. John’s homecoming weekend. And if you haven’t read King Lear yet, then why are you wasting time reading my bazillion-word blog-post? Most of the seminar group was from the same class, so I was an outsider, but we had a good conversation about the nature(s) of madness, the impossibility of retirement, and where there’s any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts.

Capital: I’m a fan of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, and the financial writing he’s been doing since the crash, so I gave his mega-novel from 2011 a shot during a business trip to Madrid. It tells the story of a number of people living on a street in London where property values have been skyrocketing. There are multi-generational long-timers, executives from the City, Pakistani shopkeepers, a rising star soccer player, and the various people with whom their lives intersect, including a Banksy-like artist, an illegal immigrant working as a meter maid, a Polish handyman, and more. It’s ambitious in its attempt at showing how insane money has gotten in our financial centers, and how it warps the lives of the rich and poor. The need to drive the plot over 600 or so pages means that the prose isn’t as gorgeous as in Debt to Pleasure, and it may not reach Bonfire of the Vanities-level zeitgeist-ery, but it’s still a good read.

Chess Story: And that brings me to Stefan Zweig. I first read about Zweig at the end (naturally) of Cultural Amnesia. Clive James largely dismissed Zweig’s fiction and instead focused on his biographical essays and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. As with many artists in James’ book, I made a note to get to him “later on.” Then I read an appreciation of Zweig in the New Yorker by Leo Carey that focused on his fiction (both writers also focus on Zweig’s 1942 suicide in Petropolis, Brazil) and decided to give his last novella a shot before the flight home from Madrid.

I sat in the airport terminal completely riveted by this slim book (80 pages). As with The Leopard in 2011, I began re-reading the book almost immediately, in awe of the storytelling, the ease of language and symbols, the utter tension of the work. I must have given out half a dozen copies of this to friends to read. The story is about a veritable idiot savant of a chess master who travels on a steamer from New York to Argentina. Our narrator wants to see him play, and contrives to get him into a match with a high-stakes amateur on the ship. A mysterious passenger offers some help during a match, and that’s when things really take off.

It’s so mind-blowingly good and compact, that I found myself buying up a number of Zweig’s other works (he only wrote one novel, otherwise sticking to the novella for his fiction) to see how they measured up. (Keep reading; you’ll find out.) But if you’re looking for a great (and quick) read, go buy Chess Story right away. Skip the introduction, because it gives away some things that it’s better to uncover in the novella itself.

I have a million more things to say about Zweig, but this isn’t the place for them, because I’ll never finish otherwise.

Bartleby & Co.: The New Yorker also tipped me off to this book by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s ostensibly a novel about “Writers of the No,” authors who quit writing or never finished their work. I thought that would be right up my alley, never having started, but the book was disappointing. The concept was fine, but there’s not enough novel-ing going on in it. The scenes from the narrator’s life, the hints at the bigger world around him, just drop away and the book we’re left with isn’t substantial enough to make up for not knowing “what happened.”

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness: I read this book by Willard Spiegelman in preparation for a pending podcast interview. (There’s a story about that, of course.) On the face of it — a book with the chapters, Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing — I thought I was getting a literary self-help book. It turns out to be a Montaigne-esque series of essays: more meditation than memoir, and certainly not self-help. I enjoyed it a great deal, perhaps because I could relate to so many of Mr. Spiegelman’s experiences, even if I’m too chicken to learn to dance.

The Emigrants : I read this W.G. Sebald book over the course of the first day of the Hurricane Sandy blackout. It’s written in the same mode as Austerlitz; a first-person narrative (with photos) about the lives of four people driven away from Germany. It’s like a precursor to Austerlitz, but I found it a little less haunting, if only because one of the titular emigrants traveled to America and some of the narrator’s travels overlapped with highways I’ve traveled.

Fifth Business / The Manticore / World of Wonders: The blackout was 8 days long, and I managed to read much of Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy in that time. It was pretty great to have no power, no way of getting in touch with the office, and nothing to do but read and sit by the fire. I read Fifth Business more than 20 years ago, but remembered almost none of it. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding prosaic. In a sense, it’s a melodrama about the magic behind our lives. See? The first book is the best of the series, but the whole trilogy is a joy, even the weird Jungian analysis of The Manticore. It’s about life in a provincial Canadian town, and saints, and magicians, and stage-craft, and childhood guilt, and a million other things. Based on my experience with it, I recommend this as a great wintertime read by a fire.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: I can only hope that Poe’s one novel was intended as a parody of sea-faring fantastic tales, because I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: Awesomely entertaining. Max Brooks’ novel about a zombie apocalypse and the living’s response to it is told as an oral history, 10 years after major hostilities have ceased. The history is told by survivors from around the world, and the International Relations aspect of it is part of why it’s so great. The story telescopes from the personal to the international/global. Some of the chapters are heartbreaking, others are terrifically creepy, and it all adds up to a really good book. Sadly, it’ll be a movie next year, and that’ll ruin everything; it’s a slow zombie menace, not a fast zombie one as the movie trailer seems to show, and that runs counter to what makes the book so darned creepy. If we’re still dividing literature into genres, then this is my zombie/thriller/horror recommendation of the year.

Journey Into the Past (New York Review Books Classics): My second Stefan Zweig novella wasn’t as good as my first, but that’s okay. This one’s more of a romantic melodrama, while Chess Story was a heavy-duty psychological crucible built around a chessboard. This one’s about the impossibility of fixing love in time, or of recapturing love we once had. While the emotional states are convincing, the story itself simply wasn’t compelling to me. Also, no zombies.

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III: I read this in preparation for a podcast with one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ron Rosenbaum. (That’ll post shortly.) Ron’s written great articles over the years, and his previous books, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, are both worth reading. This one focuses on The Bomb and just how close we are to deliberate or accidental nuclear destruction. It’s a bit policy heavy, but Ron makes it readable and pretty darned engaging. He brings some literary meditation to the topic, but this one’s first and foremost about the threat of nuclear war, not Ron’s usual approach, which is (he said, reductively) to analyze our interpretations of a phenomenon and see what they say about us, rather than go after the heart of the phenomenon itself. It’s an important book, but given the head-in-the-sand nature of our civilization, we’ll likely ignore it until it’s too late.

Selected Stories: A bunch of these cleaned the meh taste of Journey Into the Past. They’re all novellas, almost all told to our narrator by another party, and several of them will break your heart. I nearly plotzed over the story of Buchmendel, the Galician Jewish book dealer who gets into trouble during WWI by not having any idea that WWI is going on. The romantic melodramas of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fantastic Night and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman show that Zweig can employ pitched emotional states while still delivering a devastating story. After Chess Story, pick this one up.

The Silence of Trees: I read the debut novel by Valya Dudycz Lupescu in preparation for another podcast interview. We tried recording in mid-December, but she had just done the planes, trains and automobiles circuit to get from Chicago to Philadelphia and wasn’t at her most coherent. We’ve rescheduled for my next Chicago trip. It’s a novel about a Ukrainian-American matriarch who has suppressed her pre-American life from her family, and how she deals with that as she grows old. It opened my eyes to some of the non-Jewish victims of WWII, and how terrible the conditions were after it ended. There’s a certain lack of psychology to the narrator, which I THINK is a symptom of the character’s suppression; I’ll ask Valya about it in April when we record.

Night Train: Martin Amis tries to tell a police procedural about a suspicious suicide. The narrator, a boxy female detective, has to have a literary background in order to accommodate some of Amis’ prose, but he reins it in somewhat. It’s . . . not great. I mean, “great” is London Fields and Money. This one has some interesting observations in it, and the cloud of unknowing around the suicide/murder is a neat literary device, but I assume he was trying to make some sorta gender statement by naming his female narrator Mike Hoolihan. Give this one a pass, unless you’re on a serious Amis binge.

1984: I ended the year with Orwell’s final novel, which I’d last read 20 years earlier. It’s a lot more vivid to me now, but that’s the nature of re-reading as a grown-up, I suppose. I don’t think I really got the perils of Communism/Totalitarianism when I was younger. Reading it now, I think the real horror isn’t the Thought Police or Room 101, but the crumbling cigarettes, the artificial gin, the dull razors and all the other minutiae of colorless life on Airstrip One. (I was also struck this time by the awkwardness with which Orwell introduced some of the concepts of the book, but I think that’s typical of a non-science-fiction writer trying to work in that genre.)

So there we are: 52 weeks, 51 books! I’m in the midst of Bleak House right now, and am putting together a selection of stuff I’d like to get to in 2013. Most of those pulls are longer works, so don’t expect another giganto-post like this one next year!

In case you want a ranking, here are my top 10 of new reads I finished in 2012:

  1. Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
  2. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
  3. Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
  4. The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
  5. A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
  6. Austerlitz – WG Sebald
  7. History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
  8. Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
  9. World War Z – Max Brooks
  10. Money – Martin Amis

The Complete Hurricane Diaries

Rather than make readers scroll backwards through all 7 posts of The Hurricane Diaries, I’ve put them in a single post. The first one was written on Halloween, in the middle of the second day of the blackout, and the last one was on Nov. 6, when we got power restored.

Hope you enjoy them and that I don’t have to write anything like this again! (click “Continue Reading” or the headline of this post for more!)

Hurricane Diaries, part 7: World of Wonders

Welcome to the final installment of The Hurricane Diaries! You read that right! Our power has been restored just in time for tomorrow’s nor’easter to throw some trees and loose branches into the power lines! But I’ll take it!

We woke up around 6:30 this morning at my dad’s. We didn’t sleep too well; the bed was a bit uncomfortable and the dogs weren’t happy about the new, smallish space. Ru kept getting up and clacking around the guest bedroom. We showered, took the dogs out, and then drove home.

The house was forty-eight degrees when we walked in. And that was why we stayed at Dad’s last night. It was about 25 degrees last night, and there’s no way we could’ve kept the stove going enough to keep us warm without going through all the wood in the accessible part of the shed.

While I got coffee going up in the kitchen, my hands held right above the kettle for warmth, Amy cleaned out the ashes from the stove, so I could get the fire going again. I was afraid that another few nights like that would lead to burst heating pipes, since we can’t circulate the water in them without electricity.

Once I got the fire started (it was a bit difficult this time, but maybe it was just my impatience and exhaustion), I left Amy in charge and drove down to the polling station to vote. I promised my presidential vote to whichever candidate would show up and get my electricity back, but they seemed more focused on Ohio. I didn’t mind.

There was no line, so I got home quickly, got my things together, and headed out to the office. On the way, I decided to gas up the car, although I still had half a tank. I pulled toward the Valero station on 17 S., but there was a line about 15 cars long to gas up. Then I noticed that the line was for cars with their gas-tanks on the left side; the right-side lane was all clear, so I veered into the gas station at maybe an 85° angle to the line of cars, pulled up to the island, and got filled up in no time. I think the attendant was a little indignant that I didn’t have to wait. Poor Cherki.

Much of the work-day consisted of trading stories about the storm and its aftermath. Some of my coworkers never lost power, while a few others are still without. The owner of our company only got his power back on Friday, but he had a generator to keep light/heat going. Apparently, some people in the office were speculating that I would be so bored by a week without power that I’d go back to drinking. I hadn’t, but I probably would have started in on the whiskey if it got much colder.

Around 10:00 a.m., Amy texted to let me know that a repair truck was outside by the downed line, but hadn’t begun work. One of our neighbors was talking to the workers, and they told her that we’d be back up online today. I scoffed, but hoped. Also, I put in a call to the firewood delivery guy I heard about the day before at the fireplace store, to get a cord of seasoned wood out here tomorrow.

An hour later, Amy texted me a photo of our dining room pendant light shining. I cheered loudly. A passing coworker asked, “Got your power back?”

A little later, she posted a photo on Instagram of the truck and its boom lift as they repaired the line: Sending a HUGE thank you to the crew from McConnelsville, OH for coming out to this freezing town to restore power. #GratitudeMonth

I was excited and relieved, but part of me stayed skeptical. It’s not like I didn’t believe my wife, but I felt like it wouldn’t be real until I saw the lights on for myself. A little later, she posted a picture of the upstairs thermostat with the temperature creeping back to livable. I started to let myself get a little giddier.

As the day wore on, I grew impatient to get home. I took a short lunch and rolled out around 4:30. I drove up our street, looking at house after house, smiling more broadly as I saw each dining room light or front-porch lamp. I was expecting Amy to light up our place like a Thomas Kinkade painting, but she didn’t go overboard. She was downstairs, putting our flannel sheets in the washer to get the smoke smell out of them. We smooched in celebration.

So it looks like it’s over. The nor’easter doesn’t sound like it’ll be too terrible up here, and we’ll have enough wood after tomorrow to get the stove going for a long time, if necessary. We’re making plans to get a tri-fuel generator (gasoline, propane, or natural gas) that can patch into the house’s power, so we can be covered next time this happens. It’ll cost a couple grand, but I think it’s a better idea than spending $400 on a generator that can run a couple of appliances but needs gasoline all the darned time. (And we’ll turn off the main before turning on the generator, so as not to blow a fuse out on the street.)

In the past week, Amy & I talked about how this’ll be one of those events we remember for years, but how likely is that? In some respects, it’s already fading. My anxiety about losing the fire, or killing us with carbon monoxide, or starting an inferno with the ashes, etc., etc., wore me down pretty severely. When I told Dad about the firewood delivery contact, he said, “Why don’t you just go out back of my house and use the chainsaw? There are dead logs all over the place!”

“I’m suffering from sleep deprivation and cold, Pop. I’d rather pay $200 to a guy than lose my foot in a chainsaw accident, thanks,” I told him. Until I got the news today, I was pretty grim.

So what remains? What memories will I hold? The smell of smoke, of course. The tree of Damocles. Radio silence, courtesy of AT&T. The fire climbing up the dead power line. The early nights. The rosary of the hand-crank flashlight. The Walking Dead emptiness of the neighborhood. Amy tumbling and hurting her knees when the first morning when Otis lunged at another dog during our walk. My blackout beard. The kindness of neighbors. Sitting in the public library, recharging maybe a half-dozen devices and reading. Reading Sebald, reading Davies, missing Seattle. Writing all these posts on an iPad with a keyboard stand.

Now that we have power, I could’ve written this on my laptop or my Mini, but decided to stick with the iPad for one last post.

Hurricane Diaries, part 6: We only have 14 hours to save the Earth!

And on the seventh day, we gave the heck up.

I’m writing today’s installment of The Hurricane Diaries from my dad’s house, where we have power and heat. You may wonder why we didn’t head over here earlier, but every messed-up family is messed-up in its own way. Also, the house has way too many open doorways, and the dogs keep wandering from room to room, gravitating toward the open kitchen area.

So why did we leave the house? Well, partly it’s because the temperatures tonight are expected to go a bit below freezing. I’ve been running the wood-burning stove for seven days straight, the wood’s beginning to run low, and I’m afraid of how much it’ll take to keep us warm tonight. (The fuel’s not dangerously low, and I’m about to order a cord of wood for delivery, so we should be okay, but I still figure the stove could use a night off. We can clean it out tomorrow morning, since the ashes are starting to pile up, even with my mid-fire clearance procedure. (Which is improvised and, I’m sure, dangerous.))

But it’s not just the impending cold snap that drove us here. We fled because our town is cursed.

When I woke up around 4:00 a.m. to recharge the stove, I turned on my iPhone and hit Facebook. It loaded up the most recent updates, and I noticed that one of my high school pals, who lives perhaps a third of a mile away, posted “EARTHQUAKE? WTF?” for her status a few hours earlier. Another two townies in my feed also posted about it. I shook my head, got back to the stove, and wrestled it back to life. Once it was going, I got back on the Aerobed and tried to get back to sleep. It took a while, and when I woke up around 6:30, my FB feed was flooded with news about the earthquake. It was a small one, 2.0 on the Richter scale, but apparently enough to shake some people’s homes. I figured that if the dogs slept through it — including Rufus, who panics at the first sign of thunder and hides in the guest bedroom — then it must have been negligible.

Still: hurricane/superstorm, week-plus blackout, earthquake, impending nor’easter? Seemingly, there is no reason for these extraordinary intergalactical upsets, but it’s clear to me that we’re being targeted by Ming the Merciless. Amy’s more biblical in her thinking, and expects a plague of frogs or locusts, but my bet is that we’re looking at Hot Hail soon.

In other news, I had to get back to work today. We set up the office servers in the home of one of my coworkers, and I got out the remaining pages of my Nov/Dec issue without incident this morning. On the way there, I noticed a gas station with virtually no line and pulled in to fill up. I’ve only used a third of my tank since last Sunday, but figured I’d be safe. The attendant walked up and apologetically told me that I had to come back tomorrow, because I have an even-numbered license plate. I admitted that I forgot about the rationing scheme here in NJ, but would stop in tomorrow.

After finishing the mag, I called United to cancel today’s flight to Seattle. They confirmed that the exchange fee would be waived when I decided to use the ticket anytime in the next year. We’re still not projected to get power back in my zone until Friday, and that’s assuming the nor’easter doesn’t cause further delays or more outages.

Then I stopped by our actual office, which got power back yesterday. (The servers are really finicky, so once they were set up off site, it was best to leave them until we were done with the past-deadline issues.) I picked up the packages that had arrived for me last Monday (I stayed home rather than deal with the storm) and today: a pair of my Allen-Edmonds back from reconditioning, 16gb of memory for a new Mac Mini, and Cicero’s On Duties and Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War: Seven Commentaries on The Gallic War with an Eighth Commentary by Aulus Hirtius. I also picked up some empty cardboard boxes to use for kindling in the stove.

From there, it was on to a fireplace store, to pick up some fatwood and fire-/heat-resistant gloves, then Batteries Plus to stock up on D-cells, the LL Bean in Paramus Park to exchange the hand-crank flashlight I bought Saturday for one that has all 3 LEDs functioning, and finally Fairway to do some grocery shopping for Amy (and myself) before going home and making my overdue afternoon coffee.

That flashlight has been my rosary during this blackout. When I’ve been walking around in the dark this week, I find myself turning the little plastic crank absently, charging away, the whirring forming a sharp counterpoint to the constant thrum of our next-door neighbors’ natural gas-fed generator. I was a little bummed when I got it out of the package Saturday afternoon and discovered that one of the LEDs was a dud, but I got a lot of use out of that phaser-looking flashlight in the past week.

And now I’m sitting in my dad’s dining room, looking across the foyer to Ru & Otis grumplily lying on their beds in the sitting room, where Amy’s reading. Dad’s got the TV on upstairs kinda loud. (I had no idea that Two and a Half Men uses a laugh-track for 95% of the show.) It’s kinda disconcerting to be in a house that has heat and light without the background noise of a generator. I’m sure I’ll get used to it again.

Hurricane Diaries, part 5: Oaks in the Attic

The day started out with promise. I mean, not the literal day itself. The only promise in waking up at 3 a.m. was that I got to use the extra hour from setting the clocks back to resuscitating the fire in the wood-burning stove. It was down to toasty embers, but I was able to get it going again and bring some heat back to the library.

Anyway, the real promise was when I got up around 6:15 and hit the electric company’s outage map. Clicking on our zone, I saw that our power was projected to be restored TODAY! AT 8:30 A.M.!

Now, I didn’t think that time was likely to be met, since the split power line is still lying in two of my neighbors’ yards, and it would presumably need to be spliced or replaced, (unless there’s some sorta patching they could do to work around it), but I had hopes that we’d have our power back sometime today!

An hour or so later, the map updated to 12:30 p.m. today. Another two hours, and the map reverted back to Friday, Nov. 9 for the projected restore time. I got all crestfallen, and settled in for a full day without leaving the neighborhood. We walked the dogs, met some neighbors, kept the fire stoked, and otherwise hung out in our lovely library, where I finished The Manticore and began Worlds of Wonder.

While Amy napped at mid-day, I went upstairs into the cold (about 58° F) and finished up the article I need to get out tomorrow to close my Nov/Dec issue. Riddled with the combo of work-anxiety and outage-anxiety, I scarfed down all sorts of snacks while I was up there. Because I’m me, this meant cashews, trail mix, figs, and the like, as opposed to the three bags of Halloween candy that have been sitting in our kitchen for a week.

Also, I called United to ask what’ll happen if I don’t get on the flight to Seattle that I’m supposed to take tomorrow afternoon for a business trip. I already informed the biotech that I’m supposed to visit that I won’t be able to go if we don’t have power back, since I’m not capable of abandoning my wife & doggies in the cold and dark. (And with the shift in weather and the clock-change, it’s going to be colder and darker this week.)

The United rep told me that I’m eligible for a Superstorm Sandy exception to their flight change rules, and that I’ll be able to use the tickets to Seattle anytime within the 12 months that I bought them. I feel bad for the biotech, since they’re putting on a big day of sessions and a facility tour that they’d love for me to be a part of, but I think they’re understanding about the circumstances. (The event is on Wednesday, so if we get power back by Tuesday, I may be able to get out there in time, and maybe stay over an extra day and decompress there before heading home. I also have this vision of going to the office tomorrow, finishing up the mag, finding out we have power restored, zooming home, packing a bag, and heading out to Newark for the trip. It’d be in keeping with the rest of this craziness.)

But again, are these complaints? Hardly. During this morning’s walk with the dogs, we met Ann, our neighbor whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Irene last year. It took almost a year to rebuild the house (insurance, code, etc.), and they moved back in 6 weeks before Sandy struck. (They suffered no damage this time around.)

We hadn’t talked with her since Irene, so this was the first time we heard the story from her perspective. All we knew was that a huge tree by the side of her house fell in the wind and crashed through the attic, parallel to the house itself.

She told us that her family — her husband, her two kids (college age, as I recall), and her 94-year-old mom — had been in the living room upstairs during Irene. They heard a crack — the tree snapping then hitting their side of the house — and then everything went black. Why? Because the entire contents of their attic fell into the living room and the rest of the upstairs.

She told us she couldn’t move her head, because she was trapped under junk, and had to pry herself loose. It was dark, and she had no idea what shape anyone else was in. One of her daughters, upon hearing the initial crack of the tree, got up and was trying to get out when the roof fell in. Her mother started yelling, “so I knew she was okay.”

Ann suffered a broken nose from the impact, but everyone else got out without a significant injury. I told her that if our place got hit like that, I’d likely be smushed under the central air-conditioning unit, which would only be fitting because of the work I put into getting it replaced this summer.

“I told my husband that I’m worried because our central air is right over our bedroom in the new house,” she said. “He told me, ‘Come on: what are the chances it would happen twice?’”

She was pretty upbeat, considering the potential for flashback-trauma, and I told her about the house a mile or so up the street that had gotten pasted by a tree. “Not as bad as yours last year, of course.”

“We win!” she said.

So, yeah, we’re going another day without power and it’s getting colder. I’d like to watch the Giants-Steelers game, but I’ll get by without it. I mean, it’s not like my house caved in and brained me with a stack of old cassette tapes and a pile of Ranger Ricks and Dungeons & Dragons books.

Hurricane Diaries, part 4: This is getting ridiculous . . .

Counting Monday, even though we lost power only at 9 p.m., this is Day 6 of The Big Mess. This morning, the electric co. revised its estimate for when we’ll have power back. It’s now end of Nov. 9, rather than Nov. 11. I’m hoping we gain two days each morning, which would get us all square by Monday.

We decided to pay a visit to my dad, who lives about 10 miles from us. He lost power from early Monday afternoon until Wednesday morning, but has been cruising along since. We figured we’d take care of a week’s worth of laundry, charge up our devices, visit his local supermarket (which never lost power and has stayed in stock with a lot of stuff) and generally take a little break from the house. I love my home and the new library, but I’m going kinda nuts hanging out in the same room or two day after day.

Since the wood-burning stove has been going non-stop since Monday night, I figured it would die out while we were gone, giving me the opportunity to clean out all the ashes and start over with a new fire. I never had a fireplace or a stove growing up, so I have no idea about how one manages these things.

Amy drove us to Dad’s around 11 a.m., since we’re conserving gas in the Subaru for when we have to make The Big Escape. On the way, we passed a Lukoil that had dozens of cars lined up to get gas. Today’s the first day of NJ’s even/odd gas rationing system, but it didn’t look like it made much of a difference. I can’t report on much of the scene, since I’m not wasting gas waiting on line for hours to gas up my car. Funny how that works.

Anyway, Dad was doing fine. He had a EPL match to watch on his giant TV, a huge computer for me to move down to his car, so he could deliver it to a client, and all sorts of things that I could only consider The Luxuries of Electricity, like working lights and a microwave. We plugged our chargers in, started the laundry and showered. Amy pointed out that it’s great to not walk out of a hot shower into a 58° house. I concurred.

I talked with Dad while Amy got in touch with her folks in Louisiana and then read in another room. Dad mentioned that the lights had flickered right before we arrived, but laughed it off. We hadn’t talked during the week, so it was good to catch up. He was amazed that we had no phone or data at all for that 40-hour stretch Tuesday/Wednesday. I told him, “If you’d had a heart attack or something, there’s literally no way you could have gotten a message to me during that time.” I suppose it could just have easily been Verizon’s tower as AT&T’s, but grrr.

Once the first load of wash was in the dryer, we hit the supermarket and picked up some ingredients for Amy’s beef stew, as well as a “red velvet muffin” because why the hell not? On the way back to Dad’s, we noticed that the Lukoil line had diminished, probably because of a police officer at the end telling newbies that they were too late to get on line. The weather turned colder today (around 48°) and I felt bad for the people standing on line carrying gas tanks. On balance, still happy not to have bought a generator.

In Dad’s dining room, I took out my Air and started working on the last article for the November/December ish of my magazine, so I can get that out the door once we set up our new office Monday morning. I have almost enough material in, but it would be a much better piece if I’d been able to hit up more people for quotes. I’m just glad I got some requests out on the Friday before the storm.

And that’s when the power went out at my dad’s house.

Seriously. This is now two days in a row that power has gone down in the place where I’m working on the magazine. Either it’s me, or it’s a sign that I’m not meant to finish this ish.

We helped Dad hook up his critical electric stuff to the line that his neighbor strung over earlier in the week. He lives in an upscale neighborhood, and his wealthy next-door neighbor apparently has an immense generator.

I was bummed to find out that the first load of wash hadn’t finished drying. The second, of course, was all wet. We hauled all that to the car, along with our electronics and some large water bottles that we refilled during our visit. On the way home, we noticed that the power was still on by that Lukoil and the supermarket, so we hoped that Dad’s outage was a passing, local blip.

Once we got home, Amy got started on the stew while I got to work on the laundry, figuring out what had dried and what needed to be hung up by the stove. Speaking of which, the stove managed not to die out completely, so I cleared a ton of ashes, soaked ‘em in the backyard, and got the fire restarted pretty quickly.

Half an hour later, Dad texted to let me know that the power had come back on, and that we should come back over. I told him we’re saving gas, but that we’ll come by and kill his power again in the next few days.

(But seriously, we’ll move into his guest room with the dogs if this outage keeps up for a few more days.)

Hurricane Diaries, part 3: Searching for Satellites

The day started off with bad news, but took a turn for the goofy.

This morning, after I got the kettle going for our coffee (have I told you about my Emergency Coffee Management System yet? If not, I’ll do so tomorrow), I checked out the outage map for our electric company on my iPad. Since the power first went down, all the “hot-spots” had a status of “Assessing damage,” along with a little take on what was causing the outage: wire problem, pole down, etc.

This morning, we finally had an estimated time for restoring power (yay!): Nov. 11 at 11:30 p.m. (boooo…)

I closed the browser window and got back to making our coffee. I brought it downstairs and gave my wife the bad news. I was mentally juggling the amount of firewood remaining, the gas in my Subaru, and other factors that would have to hold up for the next 9 days, including my fraying sanity.

Half an hour later, I thought to check out the status for other zones on the map. All of them had the same estimated time for repair, so I felt less hopeless and more reassured that Rockland Electric was merely trying to cover its ass and make sure that all repairs were “in less than 2 weeks”.

But I had other things on my mind.

Last night, I got news that my company found some satellite space for us in the town of Glen Rock, so those of us who had issues of our magazines to put out had to come in and get pages going. At that point, I went into crazy triage mode, trying to figure out which features were closest to finished, what writing I still had to do, how I was going to accommodate a Q&A that came in 500 words longer than anticipated, and a million other factors. On top of that, my associate editor’s pages were still on her iMac in our office, making them essentially inaccessible for today’s work session.

Most important, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get to the satellite office. See, there’s one main road in and out of our town: Skyline Drive, colloquially known as “the mountain.” Because of fallen trees and power lines, it was closed after the storm came in on Monday afternoon. When Amy & I wanted to drive out to civilization on Wednesday, we had to take the secondary road out, Ringwood Ave., and that was a bumper-to-bumper mess. I was considering whether it would use less gas to take that route or to go all the way up to New York state via Sloatsburg Rd., which would likely have no traffic, but would be a bunch longer.

Gas is still more valuable than gold right now, and I want to keep consumption to a minimum.

I decided I’d try to go via Skyline Dr., and if it was still closed, I’d decide on a dime which of the other routes to try. I cruised up the lower parts of the road, heading toward the last turn-off, Cannonball Rd., where the sawhorses would be situated if the road was closed. Skyline curves slightly on that approach, so I couldn’t see whether the mountain was blocked or not as I closed in. But there was a car a bit ahead of me, so I kept looking to see if it was braking or turning off for Cannonball. When I saw it cruise ahead without the slightest flash of its taillights, I let out a cheer and was more enthused than I’ve been by anything else this week. I zoomed over Skyline with 3 or 4 other cars, probably the lightest rush hour traffic the mountain has ever seen.

From there, it was a quick trip to the satellite office. I got lots done on the issue in the next few hours, ironing out page after page with my art director. They were hoping to get our mag out today, but there was no chance of that happening, as I still needed to write a shortish article that would need at least a few phone calls and some online research. I promised we’d have the last pages done by Monday at noon.

While we worked, we traded stories from the past few days. Most of the coworkers at the office hadn’t lost power during the storm, or had it restored within a day. They all had awful tales about the behavior at the gas stations near their homes or on the highways. I’m still glad we went without a generator.

And during the morning, Amy texted me to let me know that our neighbors’ Tree of Damocles was being cut down!

I guarded against the excessive hope that they’d also replace the split power line and get our neighborhood back on the grid. I figure this is a matter of baby steps. First, get the tree down. Then, replace the transformer that blew out. (Rumor has it one of our neighbors who still had power on Tuesday decided to “test” his whole-house generator. In so doing, he fed too much power into the line and knocked out his part of the street.) Then replace that split line and hook us up!

So I persevered on the issue, and was just finishing my editorial, “Operation Blackout,” when the power died in our satellite office.

No, seriously. It just shut off. The building — and, we assume, the neighborhood — lost power.

We were all working on laptops, so no files were lost, but we couldn’t move anything to the servers and thus our day was done. I gave my art director a few files on a thumb drive, and we all helped move the servers and other equipment back down to the IT director’s car.

We figured out a place to convene on Monday morning, and all headed our separate ways. On the trip home, I marveled at more tree-on-house violence, and remained thankful that we got off easy, all things considered.

And now, back to The Manticore (and that article I have to write over the weekend)!

Hurricane Diaries, part 2: Don’t Drink the Water

Almost 72 hours since the Tree of Damocles fell against the overhead wires, cutting off our power. There was a little progress today; a van from an electrical contractor drove in, coiled up the two lengths of wire that had split on Tuesday, hung them from their respective poles, and put red “caution” tape around them. I stopped the van on its way out, but the two employees within couldn’t tell me anything about when they expect the tree itself to be cut down, which I assume is a prerequisite to restoring our power.

It’s a bit fraught, looking out one’s window and seeing a tree hanging at a 45-degree angle to the ground, supported by the cables and wires that bring this fair city light. (Okay, it’s a “town” not a “city”, and “blah” not “fair”.) At some point, the wires have to give, right?

Still, today was much better than yesterday. After suffering bouts of nausea and blinding headaches on Wednesday, we concluded the tap water has gone bad (or that the CO detector had crapped out and that we were gonna die soon), so we moved over to the bottled stuff, as well as the water we bottled before the storm hit. No symptoms today, so yay.

Internet service has been up and down, but that’s better than yesterday’s total outage. Lines at the gas stations are hours long, as people are desperate to fuel their home generators, so we’re not making any more “let’s get out of the house” treks, except for the 2.5-mile round-trip to the public library, where they have charging stations set up.

I’ve gone down there the past two days for an hour or so at a time to charge the iPads, laptops, and an external battery that charges the phones up pretty quickly. I also, of course, sit around and read while I wait.

I knocked off Fifth Business this afternoon, took a break with Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo collection, then took up The Manticore. At this point, I don’t know how I won’t finish Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy by Monday. Especially if our internet coverage stays spotty.

I cannot begin to explain the allure of these novels, but they’re a blast. Davies’ narrators and his cast of characters are utterly enchanting.

And now, back to stoking the wood-burning stove. (I put a fresh 9-volt battery in the CO detector, btw.)

Hurricane Diaries, part 1: Blackout Masquerade

Welcome to the Hurricane Party! We’re getting on 48 hours since we lost power during Hurricane Sandy, so, to alleviate my boredom, I thought I’d start rambling and see if it makes for a good post.

Today’s Halloween, 2012. We lost power in my suburban New Jersey home at 9 pm on the 29th, after a neighbor’s tree was uprooted by the wind and fell against the overhead wires. It’s still there, resting comfortably against power lines, cable, phone lines, and whatever else gets strung along those poles.

Last night, one of the power lines snapped. It began arcing all around our next-door neighbor’s mailbox. Some cops arrived, didn’t do much but put up cones to warn cars away, announced by loudspeaker that we should all stay inside because of the live wire, and left.

At some point, the electric company must have turned off the current to that one. It stopped arcing, but the insulation of the wire had caught fire, and began slowly creeping up the line, like a fuse of a bundle of dynamite in an old western. I stood outside with another neighbor and tried to figure out how to put out the flame. He’d called the fire dept. earlier and they told him there was nothing they could do. We’re clearly heading toward Walking Dead territory here.

So my neighbor and I figured that if it was an electrical fire, we’d cause more harm by spraying it with a fire extinguisher or hitting it with sand. And the possibility that it was still live kept us from trying to do anything to smother it.

The fire climbed on, about 10 inches in length, burning its way up the cable. Lucky for us, when it reached the stretch of line that was enmeshed in a tree’s branches, it died out. My neighbor and I waited a full minute before celebrating our reverse pyrokinesis. In truth, it was just that the wire was no longer hanging perpendicular to the ground, so the flame couldn’t feed up into it. Still, it was a big bag of not good.

As is the fact that AT&T’s cell tower in our area went kablooey about 12 hours after power wen down. So we have no phone and no data, except for my wife’s iPad, which uses Verizon to grab data. We go on that to grab e-mail and look for updates on our situation, but try not to stay on too long, to preserve the battery. We’ve got chargers in the car and a Trent battery that’ll work on pads and phones, don’t worry. (Update: woke up at 3:00 a.m. on Nov. 1 and AT&T service seems to be working again, after about 40 hours down.)

Still . . . Walking Dead territory. Several of our neighbors have generators, but the lines at the few remaining gas stations are a mile long, so who knows how long those will hold out? Meanwhile, we’ve got the wood-burning stove going down in the library, and moved down here to sleep. The upstairs of the house reads 59 degrees, according to the thermostat.

But you guys don’t want to hear about all that doom and gloom! You wanna know about books, right?

Well, a few days before the hurricane hit, I finished reading 7 Pleasures, essays about ordinary happiness, by Willard Spiegelman. I’m supposed to have him on the podcast this January, so I gave it an early read and took a bunch of notes. I enjoyed it quite a bit; he reminds me of myself, in terms of finding joy in certain aspects of the day-to-day. I hope we have a good conversation for you guys.

Once the storm hit, I took up The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald. I may be interviewing a pal of mine about Sebald next week, depending on how this situation works out, so I thought I’d give that one a read to pair it up with this year’s earlier reading of Sebald’s book Austerlitz. He’s a remarkable and weird writer. That first-person but not really first-person style of his, along with the fake documentary stuff like photos and documents, make for a very strange atmosphere.

This one’s like a proto-Austerlitz, with a little too self-conscious artifice, but some amazing and arresting segments about people who were uprooted by the 20th century. I’m sure I’ll get to his other two novels in the next few months.

The thing is, since I finished The Emigrants in one day, I had to decide on something else to read last night. This is no easy task. I didn’t want to start anything huge, because of the uncertainty about when we’ll have power, and where we’ll be staying if things get worse. For a minute, I flipped through my copy of The Recognitions, thinking maybe …

Nah. I’ll reread that someday, but not while I’m ekeing out the few daylight hours and having my brain numbed by the constant thrum of the generators.

I picked up Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, which I last read around 20 years ago, but couldn’t get into it. I didn’t need that much meta just then.

My wife & I hung out with out neighbors for a little while, and then I came back, walked the dogs, and made a concerted effort to find something on the shelves that would be quick, and easily digestible. I wound up with 800 pages of Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy.

I think I read the first volume, Fifth Business, also around 20 years ago, but don’t recall much of it. I’ve read about half of that one today; if this power outage keeps up, I may knock out the whole shebang by next week. I’ll keep you informed.

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