“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“Poetry chose me at an early age. I think it was connected to the fact that poetry is emotional, pretty, and short.”
Rachel Hadas, author of Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia and Poetry (Paul Dry Books), lost her husband to early onset dementia. We talk about how poetry — hers and others’ — gave her solace during this years-long process. We also talk about poetry is a way for the poet to both release and identify emotions, why it was easier to publish collections of poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, the benefits of poetry memorization, and why the Furies looked the other way when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.
“Writing helps us to live through something and then it helps us remember it, if we want to.”
BONUS: You get to hear me record an intro after 35 hours with no sleep, and find out about the huge, life-changing thing I did last week!
About our Guest
Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Between college and graduate school she spent four years in Greece, an experience that surfaces variously in much of her work. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark (NJ) campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Rachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, prose, and translations. Most recently, she her memoir about her husband’s illness, Strange Relation, was published by Paul Dry Books (2011) and a new book of her poems, The Golden Road, was published by Northwestern University Press (2012).
Credits: This episode’s music is Strange Conversation by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at the home of Ms. Hadas on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in a hotel room in London on the same gear. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Rachel Hadas by me.
As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake way to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaid his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
—John Williams, Stoner
Click on the pic above to embiggen
I started the 2012 edition of Another Year, in the Books with a quote from the great book critic Michael Dirda. I have another one on hand from this year’s crop, but figured I’d lead off with one from the best novel I read in 2013. Still, if you’re pining for some Dirda, here you go:
More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text — this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phase, “at risk.” Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world’s literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.
—Michael Dirda, “Millennial Readings: Dec, 5 1999,” Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
I finished reading 38 books in 2013, although I did read one of them twice. Since this was the year that I really focused on producing a good podcast and bringing in good authors as guests, just about half of those books were ones I read to prep for interviews. That’s not to say they were like homework! In fact, a lot of them opened me up to new areas of thought, and some were simply authors I’d long overlooked. I don’t have any regrets about spending time with those books, nor with the 10 books that were rereads from past years (marked with an (r) in the writeup below, after the authors’ names).
It feel like my life is really the act of reading and rereading.
The only downside to rereading is that it’s time I don’t spend with a new (to me) book. That picture of the “class of 2013″ adds up to about 37 linear inches of books (click here for a larger version on Flickr). The total shelf-space in my library I currently have devoted to books (not including comics and magazines) is about 1250 linear inches. That means this 2013 crop constitutes less than 3% of the total amount of books in my library. The 2012 crop was 51 books, which is just insane.
Now, some of those books are duplicates, like the two translations of Proust, the Library of America collections of Philip Roth, the sentimentally held-onto editions of Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters, the five different editions of The Leopard, and other items that should held indicate that I’m a bit deranged.
But if we knock off, say, 100 linear inches of books from that count, that only gets us up to 3.2% of the current library. Meaning, if I was starting afresh and not bringing new books in, it would take me a little more than 30 years at this pace to work my way through everything.
But of course I’m not starting afresh, and I did just order some new books this morning. I’m also waiting for advance review copies (ARCs) of books from upcoming podcast-guests. So as I think I pointed out in the 2011 edition, my relationship with my library is really my relationship with death.
So I guess I better get to work telling you about the past year’s reading so I can get on with reading next year’s books! (Oh, and go check out this podcast so you can find out my guests’ favorite books from 2013!)
Bleak House – Charles Dickens (r) – I should probably do these write-ups as I finish reading the books. For the life of me, I’m not sure why I began rereading this one. It’s one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read, so I’m glad I returned to it after 20+ years. I read the book’s saddest scene in a Five Guys burger joint and still kinda teared up.
Confusion – Stefan Zweig – I think my Zweig expectations were too high after the great experiences I had with Chess Story and a collection of his shorter fiction in 2012. This was . . . good. Not great. Not keeping me utterly enthralled, but not boring me. It’s about a man who gets sent to university because he’s a wastrel, and becomes a great student, under the thrall of a masterful professor prone to mysterious behavior. The confusion of the title becomes clear to modern readers, but I don’t know how veiled or coded it was back in the 1920s, when Zweig wrote it. As I think about it a little for this writeup, I’m actually warming to it a little, in part because of its contrast with Stoner, which I’ll get to later.
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War – Fred Kaplan – This is the first one I read for a podcast guest, and boy, was it a doozy. Kaplan’s a really good writer on military issues, and he brings a ton of clarity to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the success of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the latter, its futility in the former, and how the guys behind COIN tried to shake up a U.S. military establishment that — post-Vietnam — wanted no part of this sort of warfare (despite getting immersed in it several times since the end of the Cold War). I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books, but this one was fantastic. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis – I’m not sure why this one didn’t grab me the way it has so darn many readers, but I’m starting to be concerned with the number of university-based novels I’ve been reading in the past year or so. I hesitate to say it was “too British,” but it might belong to a very specific type of British writing that I just don’t appreciate. Could also be the postwar era in which it was written and takes place; between that & the university setting, it’s like an alien environment to me. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more when I was younger, a perverse notion given how so many other books have flowered for me in middle age. Here’s another guy’s perspective.
A Sport and a Pastime – James Salter – I’d heard of Salter a few times over the years, but never tried him out until the publicity wave for his new novel, All That Is. This is another novel that’s almost contemporary and yet requires a recognition of the time & setting, the morals that were in place, etc. The prose itself had some beautiful, Tropic of Cancer-ish passages, although Salter’s main precursor looks to be Hemingway, with whom I’ve never exactly clicked. I enjoyed it enough to give another Salter novel a read later in the year.
Engine Summer – John Crowley – I had heard that this short novel is the second-best book by Crowley, behind his masterpiece, Little, Big, and is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever. I can’t argue with that, although my SF reading peaked during my teenage years. The way-post-apocalyptic setting reminded me a little of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there’s so much more going on in this book, and it’s tied together with an amazing plot device. I’d only read Crowley’s “fantasy” books before this, if that’s what you’d call Little, Big and the AEgypt novels, and now I kinda wish he wrote some more SF.
The Original 1982 – Lori Carson – One of my favorite singer/songwriters wrote her first novel! And I got to interview her about it! The publicity material described it as a cross between Almost Famous and Sliding Doors, and that’s about right. The lead character is a Lori Carson stand-in who had an abortion in 1982 and regrets it enough to reimagine a life in which she kept her baby. The narrative swings from her imagined life to her reality, although not in a disconcerting way. It’s a beautiful little book about the big and little decisions we make and how life sometimes doesn’t pay attention to what we want or do. Listen to our podcast about it!
Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda – A collection of columns from the Washington Post Book World c.1993-1999 by one of our best living book critics. Dirda’s work has always brought me joy and it was honor to sit down with him for an interview in 2012. These are appreciations, humor pieces, and brief essays, and if there’s an elegiac tone about the lost art of close reading, they’re still full of wonder. I oughtta re-interview him in 2014. Listen to our podcast from 2012!
Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson – I love Gibson’s novels, but his nonfiction just isn’t as good. It seems that he finds it tough to straddle the line of non-fiction and personal writing. It’s not his fault, because he’s engaged in a really specific form of novel-writing, for the most part, but it does go to show that some writers don’t make the jump from form to form very well.
The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy – Wallis Wilde-Menozzi – I have to admit to an embarrassing fact; there are 37 individual books on this list, and only 4 of them were written by women. Oh, and I read all 4 of them in preparation for podcast interviews. Man, I gotta diversify, huh? That said, this book was one of the best I read this year. Ms. Wilde-Menozzi’s prose style is gorgeous and the book has wonderful insights from the 40-plus years she’s spent in Italy. She discusses the various cultures and class- and gender-structures she encountered there, but intercuts the quotidian and the political with segments on art and architecture. It was a joy to interview her and I’m awfully glad to have read this one. (I bought extra copies as presents for future pod-guests.) Listen to our podcast about it!
Chess Story – Stefan Zweig (r) – I discovered this in 2012 and just find myself compelled to return to it. It’s an amazing novella about two men playing chess on a steamer from New York to Argentina during WWII. I have also given away many copies of this book, and bought two editions in German when I was in Nuremberg in October. Here’s one of the more beautiful passages:
From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Mohammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?
But keep in mind that it’s not all poetic language; it’s also got a devastating, inexorable plot. And it’s about the tension between imagination and the real, between art and politics. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but this book contains worlds. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it impossible to put down, and you’ll find yourself going back to it at the very least to tease out its storytelling mechanisms.
Moby-Dick – Herman Melville (r) – I re-re-reread this in 2009, but it was the book for this year’s Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College, so I jumped into the Pequod once again. The conversation we had about the book helped illuminate some pieces for me, esp. how the Quaker faith envisions God and how Ahab’s tension between that religion and his hunt for the whale tie the book in knots.
Little, Big – John Crowley (r) – With Bleak House, Moby-Dick, and Little, Big, I guess this was my year for giant-sized re-reads, huh? I set up an interview this year with the author, John Crowley, so I returned to Edgewood and one of the finest American novels. And I was struck by the Americanness of it; it’s timeless and yet it’s also enmeshed in a post-Vietnam mindset of urban destruction and national malaise. Knowing the broad strokes of it, I had a better time immersing myself in the language and imagery, as well as teasing out some of the bits I found inscrutable the first time around. It was almost like having a floor-plan of the Drinkwaters’ house, which remains bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.
The only downside of this whole experience is that, when I met Crowley for the interview, I brought along my wife’s old mass market paperback of Little, Big for him to inscribe. She rereads the novel every year or two, as she’s done since she was a teen. And I either forgot to mention it or he didn’t hear me say it, but he . . . um . . . inscribed it to me instead of Amy. On the plus side, there’s enough room on the inscription line to add her name, so I plan on bringing it up to Readercon next July in hopes that he’ll be able to amend it. Listen to our podcast about it!
Sabbath’s Theater – Philip Roth (r) – I don’t know what prompted me to pick this one up. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 1995, but it was a key work in Roth’s books of the past 15 years and, with Roth’s announcement of his “retirement” from writing, I gave it a go. Now I understand what was calling me back to it; almost all of Roth’s subsequent novels — the American Pastoral books, the Nemesis Quartet, The Dying Animal — all find their roots in this novel. Thread after thread, theme after theme, device after device, all crop up in Sabbath’s Theater. The lead, Mickey Sabbath, is also the last truly immense — I wanna say Shakespearean — character Roth created. Funnily enough, the book came up in two podcasts I recorded this year: both of those writers marveled over Sabbath’s Theater and how it separated Roth from the pack of his contemporaries.
Portrait Inside My Head: Essays – Phillip Lopate – Mr. Lopate was one of those Roth-admiring guests. I’d read a few of his pieces over the years, but when he consented to appear on my podcast, I only had a week or so to prepare. So I read more than 400 pages of his work in the span of 8 days, starting with this recent collection. At the risk of insulting the other fantastic writers and thinkers who’ve appeared on my show, I think Mr. Lopate’s command of his form — the personal essay — is greater than any other living writer’s at his or her form. This one has some great pieces in it; the centerpiece is The Lake of Suffering, Mr. Lopate’s essay about his child’s congenital illness over the first years of her life, but the topics are so varied that you’ll soon find yourself immersed in his erudition, personality and powers of observation. Listen to our podcast!
To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction – Phillip Lopate – Part of the “400 pages in 8 days” run. It’s a discussion of the craft of non-fiction — particularly Mr. Lopate’s branch of it — and it’s another book that I’ve bought multiple copies of, to give to friends and people who want to write. Listen to our podcast!
Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise – David Rothenberg – This was easily the strangest book I read in 2013. One of my guests, Maxim Jakubowski, connected me with David to talk about this book, which springboards from the phenomenon of the 17-year cicada to the notion that mankind gained rhythm from background noise of insects. It’s a fun theory, and Rothenberg brings all sorts of science and art into the conversation, while also exploring human stories that may not exactly prove or disprove his hypothesis, but help build a narrative about the role of man in nature, and nature in man. There’s an accompanying CD, in which Rothenberg accompanies insects like the cicada on his clarinet. Really, it’s a fascinating book that I never would have come across were it not for the podcast. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Oresteia – Aeschylus (tr. Lattimore) (r) – I reread Aeschylus’ revenge trilogy because I was a chapter or two into the next book on this list, which is all about revenge, and figured I should get a little background on the topic from its early days. This time around, I had some questions that I should bring up the next time I’m down at St. John’s. Why didn’t the Eumenides go after Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigenia (before the play begins)? After all, that’s a murder in the blood-line, which is what triggers the Furies’ pursuit of Orestes. And why is the first play named after Agamemnon when he only appears for one scene?
Payback: The Case for Revenge – Thane Rosenbaum – This book was dazzling, but I’m sure some people will find it infuriating. Mr. Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham (and also a novelist and essayist), argues that the legal system has eliminated the role of revenge in justice, to the detriment of society. I hesitate to say that it’s a very Hebraic notion of justice, so let’s say it’s an “un-Christian” notion. It bogs down a little on the chapter covering the neurobiology of revenge, but overall it’s an impressive and proscriptive piece of work about a key failing of the modern state. Listen to our podcast about it!
A Month in the Country – JL Carr – One of the tutors at St. John’s recommended this one during our Piraeus weekend on Moby-Dick in June. One Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my library and bought it on my Kindle. Three hours later, I got up and looked around with new eyes. It’s a wonderful, short novel (about 130 pages) about art, religion, class, sexuality and the upheaval of them all following WWI. It takes place in a sleepy town in the north of England, where a London-based art restorer takes month-long job uncovering and restoring a painting in a centuries-old church. There’s a movie of it starring very young Colin Firth and Ken Branagh, but give this one a read.
Checkpoint – Nicholson Baker – David Gates suggested I read this one, after I told him that I believe the worst crime of the Bush era is the amount of crappy art that came out from people who were opposed to the Bush era. It’s a conversation between two men, one of whom plans to kill George Bush. I’m of two minds about this book, neither of them good. First, I don’t think Baker has much of an ear for dialogue, and this is the second book I’ve read of his that consists solely of dialogue. Second, if a major publishing house put out a book consisting of a conversation between two men about killing Barack Obama, it would face a shitstorm of unimaginable proportions. But it was fine for Knopf to publish a fantasy about murdering a sitting president, because he was on the red team? Dude, we live in one messed-up time.
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth (r) – My brother asked me where he should start with Philip Roth. I told him, “Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater, for the short version.” Thane Rosenbaum, author of Payback (above), told me that his Roth really begins with The Ghost Writer. Still, I thought I’d go back to Roth’s breakthrough book and see if it would still make me laugh and cringe. It did.
The Death of Ivan Ilych – Leo Tolstoy (r) – Oh, you know: just wanted to cheer myself up.
Stoner – John Williams – I think it’s the best novel I read this year. It’s certainly the most harrowing. I’d heard about this book and its “lost classic” status for a few years now; I started it after reading an appreciation of it in the New Yorker by Tim Kreider. (I’d bought it a few months earlier at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.) Kreider refers to Stoner as the anti-Gatsby, and I think that’s dead-on. It tells the story of an English lit professor in Missouri, his humble beginnings, his frustrations in his profession and his marriage, and the few brief, magical moments of his life. All told, it chronicles a forgotten, forgettable life in beautiful but plain prose. I suppose I should compare it to the other university books I read this year, Lucky Jim and Confusion. There’s little overlap with Zweig’s book, but it does make an interesting contrast with Amis’ Lucky Jim, both in terms of being an Unlucky Stoner and in the way in which its very prose styles and depth of feeling form a midwestern contrast to Amis’ ‘Londonness.’ Please give this book a read but keep in mind that it’s almost unremittingly sad and frustrating. And please ignore this idiot.
A Month in the Country – JL Carr (r) – Well, a week or so after I read this the first time, I got a notice that the Annapolis chapter of the St. John’s Alumni Association would be discussing this book during a weekend that I was going to be down in Bethesda, MD. So I gave it a re-read and attended the conversation. The downside was that this session took place during the morning of Yom Kippur, so I was fasting, light-headed and thick-tongued. Still, it was good to talk with some Johnnies about it; I miss book-conversation more than any other aspect of my college/grad-school years. Well, except for the basketball and the girls.
Vineland – Thomas Pynchon (r) – Don’t ask me why. It was just because Pynchon’s new novel was coming out soon, and I had a feeling that it might have some similarities to Vineland, which I detested the first time I read it. (Note: not only do I remember the circumstances of buying that books — I was in a car with my old man in Ridgewood, NJ, saw it in a window display in the B. Dalton, told him to pull over and ran in to buy it — I also remember the funny dream I had about it before it came out: the author bio on the back cover-flap read, “Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Slow Learner,” but the author photo was — get this — of an empty room!) I got more out of it this time, insofar as I came into it with a little more perspective on how the Reagan years were perceived, especially by Californians. It’s still not a good novel, but I can slot it more easily into Pynchon’s body of work and, in my 40s, I can cut a lot more slack for authors than I could when I was 19.
The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran – Hooman Majd – I had never given much thought to what day-to-day life in Iran is like, so this book was a revelation. I read it in advance of an interview with the author, an Iranian-American journalist who chronicles a year of living in Iran with his (very American) wife and their 8-month-old child. It put me in mind of 1984 in several ways. Beyond the obvious perspective of living in a surveillance state, there are also all the little ways in which western sanctions against Iran affect its populace. I always felt that Orwell’s depictions of crappy gin and subpar cigarettes in Airstrip One are at least as compelling as his depictions of torture at the end of his book. Majd also includes a harrowing section in which a friend describes his time in Evin prison after the 2009 elections, a sort of Room 101 but with a glimmer of hope. It’s a fascinating book, both in its humanization of Iran’s people, but also in the implication that the middle-eastern country that has the most in common with Iran just might be Israel. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir – Bruce Jay Friedman – I interviewed the great cartoonist and artist Drew Friedman for the podcast, and mentioned that I’d love to record one with his dad sometime. He was pessimistic, but I figured I’d start reading up on the guy, just in case. My only experiences with Bruce Jay Friedman were his nonfiction and his cameo in my favorite unwatched Woody Allen movie, Another Woman, so I dived into this 2011 memoir. It’s a hoot, chronicling BJF’s literary development, his stint in the USAF, his magazine-writing/editing career, his leap into the freelance world, his adventures in playwriting, his stints in Hollywood, his evenings at Elaine’s, his friendship with Mario Puzo, and more. The book barely discusses his family life and his kids, but that’s not the subject of it, I guess (or that’s his way of not dealing with his parenting skills). I was kinda thrilled to find out that BJF is a big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a chance to record a podcast sometime. (I know: reading someone’s memoir without actually reading his work is similar to the time I read Stephen King’s On Writing without having read any of his fiction. I’m weird.)
The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning – Peter Trachtenberg – I once joked that the Arts section of the New York Sun was composed by the Tyler Durden of my unknowingly insomniac self. Almost every day that section featured articles that seemed to be written just for me. Which may be why that paper went under. I had a similar vibe reading The Book of Calamities to prep for a podcast with the author. In his discussion of suffering and what it means, Trachtenberg covers ground that I would have gravitated to: Gilgamesh, Rwanda, the Book of Job, the Oresteia, the contextualizing of 9/11, the use of suffering as history, and more.The subject matter can make it a hard book, but I think it’s pretty worthwhile. Listen to our podcast about it!
Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons – Peter Trachtenberg – Okay, this was a lot tougher of a book, even though it’s briefer and it’s about love instead of suffering. He takes the occasion of a lost cat and the kindasorta disintegration of his marriage to explore ideas of love, the workings — and misworkings — of memory, and . . . well . . . our relationship to cats. It’s also about the nature of writing non-fiction, a topic I find pretty interesting. Some of it delves deeply enough into domestic life that I felt a bit uncomfortable/intrusive, but that was the author’s choice, so hey. These two Trachtenberg books fit well together, and he’s another author I discovered through the network effect of the podcast. In this case, when I went up to VT to interview David Gates at Bennington’s low-residency MFA program, he was kind enough to show me around and introduce me to a few other writer-professors in the program, including Trachtenberg, Lopate, and a few others I hope to interview in 2014. Listen to our podcast about it!
Everyman – Philip Roth (r) – I read this every year or so. It’s about an old Jew who dies, and how his life has been defined to a large extent by ailments. It’s a very brief book, one that Roth considers part of his Nemesis Quartet. In some respects, it’s a muted version of Sabbath’s Theater, but its brevity doesn’t make it less effective.
The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion – Virginia Postrel – Another podcast-related book, but I read and enjoyed Ms. Postrel’s two previous books — The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style — so it’s not like I would’ve skipped this one. It’s a gorgeous piece of work about the history and effects of glamour. That may sound like a lightweight topic, but Ms. Postrel shows how it warrants seriousness. She avoids the easy out of saying, “Being susceptible to glamour is a sign of weakness,” and instead uses the phenomenon to explore what it means to be human and how (sometimes) illusions help us discover a deeper reality. Did that sound cliche or trite? I apologize. It’s a good, visually stunning book with lots of good insights into glamour and human behavior. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Fifty-First State– Lisa Borders – Here’s what I said about it in the intro to our podcast conversation:
It takes place in the southern farmland of New Jersey, where a 17-year-old kid’s parents have just died in an awful car wreck. His half-sister, who’s about 20 years older and an artsy photographer in New York City, has to move back to her hometown to take care of him through his last year of high school. That’s a kind of simple pitch, but it’s a lovely novel. It’s more emotionally real than most contemporary fiction I’ve read, really getting into how grief can warp our behavior. Lisa also does a great job of portraying both what it’s like to be a 17-year-old bundle of hormones in a sleepy farm town, and to be in your mid-thirties and really not happy with having to leave the big city, even if your life there wasn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys. What I’m saying is, you should give this one a read.
The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism – Daniel Goldhagen – I read this as prep for a podcast, but Mr. Goldhagen had to postpone, so I’m hoping to sit down with him and talk about antisemitism sometime in 2014. It’s not a conversation I’m looking forward to, exactly. Goldhagen paints a very bleak picture, drawing on the history and roots of antisemitism and its newest, global incarnation. He cites polls where countries that have virtually no Jews whatsoever (like China) nonetheless answer that Jews have too much power in their country. I was cheered that he supported one of my pet theories about the resurgence of antisemitism among white Europeans: a sense of shame over how they couldn’t wait to expel Jews from their countries during the Nazi era transforms into a form of resentment that is equally virulent against Jews. As in, the living Jews, both in Israel and in these countries, are a reminder of how awful their own people behaved during the war, and they take it out as rage against Jews, as if to imply that the Jews somehow deserved that awful treatment. Anyway, if you really wanna feel depressed for the future of Jews in this world, give this one a read.
Solo Faces – James Salter – More Hemingwayesque prose from James Salter, this time about mountain climbing. A past pod-guest told me how much he felt this book captured the feeling of climbing; I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never climbed more than a 20–foot face in the woods near my home. This book contains one of the most savagely manly psychotherapy sessions ever. Its climax was so over the top that I felt uncomfortable about even laughing a little to defuse it.
Getting Personal: Selected Essays – Phillip Lopate – I’d begun this broad collection of Mr. Lopate’s essays during the buildup to our interview, but didn’t finish it until a few months later. If you’d like to get started reading his personal essays, this is a perfect place to start. As I mentioned earlier, he’s a master of this form. I was in awe of his control of language, tone, pacing, characterization, and more. Nowadays, when everyone has a “book of essays” that consists of little more than embarrassing stories from adolescence, it’s refreshing to see how wonderful this form can be. Listen to our podcast!
Barracuda in the Attic – Kipp Friedman – This is a new memoir from a son of Bruce Jay Friedman. It forms a nice companion to Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir, in that it actually covers the relationship of BJF to his family. You don’t have to know much about the family history to enjoy it; the stories are pretty self-contained and relate a youngest-son’s perspective on a wacky family dynamic. Kipp’s dad and two brothers (Drew and Josh Alan Friedman) each make lovely contributions to the book. Listen to our podcast about it!
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin – The author & I overlapped at college, though we don’t remember each other. A mutual friend did, and suggested I interview Brett for the show. I picked up a copy of his book at our local library and devoured it in two days. It’s a really insightful book about the recent golden age of TV drama, and the writer-creators who were at its core. The Difficult Men are both the male leads — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and others — and the aforementioned writer-creators — David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Wiener, and others — and Brett does a great job of depicting the highs and lows of the writers’ rooms for these shows, how they managed to get on the air, how the viewing public approached them, and why we may not be in such a golden age now. If you dig those great TV shows of the past decade-plus, you need to read this one. Our podcast is coming up soon, so check the archives page after January 7.
The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman – Bruce Jay Friedman – And here’s where the year ends. I started reading some of BJF’s stories so I’d get more of a flavor of his writing, in case an interview came together. Within 60 or 70 pages, I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. It was somewhere in the middle of “Detroit Abe,” the short story that would later become the movie Doctor Detroit, that it all clicked for me. I finally understood why my lyric flights always crashed, and my mystical expositions fizzled. I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe. Now I just wish I was writing 30 or 40 years ago, when there was a market for this stuff. This past weekend, I began a new story and struggled like crazy with the first page of it. I gave up, frustrated. That night, I began reading a BJF story from this book, realized exactly what my opening line should be and why the previous iterations didn’t work, and went back downstairs to begin writing. If I didn’t sideline myself by writing this giant mess, I’m sure I’d have finished the story by now!
But seriously, I’m so glad to have made this discovery.
And that’s it for 2013’s books! According to my Kindle, I’m around 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which I’d been meaning to start for a while. I also have a few books in from upcoming pod-guests, but I’m hoping to balance that with more of what’s already in my library. I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, Salter’s Light Years, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge , Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante’s Inferno (next June’s Piraeus book), Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and . . . but that’s already looking too ambitious, right?
Sigh. Seeya in 2014!