At the end of last year’s writeup, I mentioned that I was 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale. I bailed on it; just wasn’t feeling it, which may have been due to reading it on my Kindle vs. print. I also mentioned that I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, James Salter’s Light Years, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. How’d I fare? I didn’t get to Sebald or The Radetzky March, I gave up on Light Years after 100 pages, did read Bleeding Edge, Stern and the whole Divine Comedy, and never got back to Kahneman’s book.
Click on the pic above to embiggen
Reading for my Virtual Memories Show podcast dominated my book selection this year. Around two-thirds of the books I read were by guests or were for background for our interviews. I’m not complaining; a lot of them were really good, and I may never have gotten around to them without the impetus of the show! There were some periods where I was chasing, or just trying to stay afloat with reading. That said, when I finally got ahead of the guest list in April, I took it upon myself to read Dante, which of course turned out to be fantastic.
Anyway, I read more than 50 books this year, but not all of it was Dante-sized. I still haven’t made an appreciable dent in my library, which keeps creeping up as new pod-guest-books come in, along with my own purchases and gifts from pals. I’ve asked our handyman to build me a couple of book carts, so I can pretend that there’s enough shelf space downstairs for everything.
The list below only includes prose work. I feel like including comics would be cheating, but I do have to say that one of the best books I read last year was Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about her parents’ deaths in their mid-90s. If you’re using this as a shopping list, definitely put that one at the top. If you read smart comics, you should also check out Here, by Richard McGuire, a full-length version of the groundbreaking six-page comic he made in 1989. You’ll never look at a corner of your living room the same again. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s Chris Ware’s take on Here.) And give Over Easy, by Mimi Pond, a read. (I did a podcast with Roz Chast, and pair with Mimi Pond. Here’s the one with Roz, and part 1 and part 2 with Mimi.)
Unlike past years, I’m not going to take this space to ruminate on midlife, mortality, the pleasure of books, etc. Well, it’s all about the pleasure of books, I suppose. Enjoy, and good reading in 2015!
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Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry – Rachel Hadas – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Willard Spiegelman. It’s a memoir about the period in which Rachel’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a beautiful book that details both her husband’s decline and the poetry that helped sustain Rachel through that gradual, terrible loss. I’m a poetry imbecile; that is, I don’t spend enough time with poetry, because of my preference for novels, but I was pretty immersed in this one. Listen to our podcast!
Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora – Emily Raboteau – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Peter Trachtenberg. It’s the author’s exploration of race as she travels the world. She’s a very light-skinned black woman, at least by American standards. In Jamaica, she’s considered white, and in Africa, she’s something else completely. It’s a compelling book about identity and blackness in America. Listen to our podcast!
Comics Art – Paul Gravett – Read it for the podcast, in time for a business trip to England, where I connected with the author. It’s a good overview of the comics form, without the America-centricity that can crop up in that sort of survey. The book was commissioned as part of the Art series for the Tate, and it does have a sort of museum aspect to it, but I mean that in a good way. Paul is so so knowledgeable about comics, and it was a pleasure to read the book and then talk with him for something like four hours over an afternoon. Listen to our podcast!
Black Cracker – Josh Alan Friedman – Read it for the podcast, as part of my “Capturing The Other Friedmans” series of interviews. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Josh’s childhood, where he wound up as the only white student in an all-black school in the ’60s. It’s hysterically funny, but I was a little nervous about people noticing the cover while I was reading it on a British Railways ride. The book was particularly interesting because I read it after reading Josh Alan’s youngest brother’s book about their childhood (Barracuda in the Attic), their dad’s memoir (Lucky Bruce, which I reread soon after this), and hearing middle brother Drew’s stories about childhood. It’s not like a Rashomon situation, but each rendition creates a fuller picture of the tensions and dynamics of these kids and their parents. I’d love to get all the family together for a group interview, but I’m afraid it could lead to bloodshed, possibly mine. Listen to our podcast!
About Harry Towns
The Current Climate
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (r)
A Mother’s Kisses – Bruce Jay Friedman – Read it all for the podcast, but also because I made the discovery of Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction in 2013. (As you may or may not recall, I wrote, “I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. . . . 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.”) Stern and A Mother’s Kisses supported the claim Bruce’s son made to me, that their dad was Philip Roth before Philip Roth. The two books of Harry Town stories, About Harry Town and The Current Climate, helped me think more about my Abe Loesser stories. Several of the chapters in them mirror episodes from BJF’s memoir, Lucky Bruce, which I re-read once we were definitely on to record a show. I was interested in how Bruce rewrote the stories of his life for fiction and for memoir. We didn’t go into that topic extensively during our conversation, but it did give me a sort of license to play more with my experiences and bend them out of strict re-telling and into art. Listen to our podcast!
The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) – Technically not for the podcast, although it did serve as background when I interviewed George Prochnik a little while later. This was the new translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, which he sent out to his publisher shortly before his suicide in 1942. It paints a magical picture of pre-WWI Vienna, and a harrowing picture of Austria after that war. Some of the most evocative material is about Zweig’s own development, and what it was like to live in a time when one could travel the world without a passport. The New York city segment is a joy. It’s a remarkable book. I don’t know if there’s a “key” to understanding Zweig’s suicide, but contrasting the world of yesterday with the future that was unfolding — even with an Allied win over the Axis — it was clear that Zweig didn’t want to live through another reconstruction or face a bureaucratized future. Listen to my Zweig podcast with George Prochnik.
Visible City – Tova Mirvis – Read it for the podcast. This was pitched by the publisher, and I had some reticence about it; from the description they gave, it sounds like Mommy Lit, which is not my thing. It had more going on than that, lucky for me, in terms of urban exploration and struggling with Judaism. I was bummed to find that the closing line of my short story about the High Holidays was mirrored in her book, as a minor line describing a character, but I refused to give it up. Listen to our podcast, even though I didn’t do a good job on this one, for a variety of reasons.
The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 – DG Myers – Read it for the podcast. The first non-fiction / non-memoir of this year’s reading. The late Prof. Myers (he died in September 2014) writes a wonderfully readable history of creative writing programs, from their inception to the mutant self-replicating form they’ve evolved into. It’s an illuminating piece of scholarship about a system that seems broken at first glance (that is, treating creative writing as an accredited program leads to teaching it for the sake of making more formulaic writers and/or more creative writing teachers); with an understanding of its history, we see far better how it ended up like this. Note: I’ve never taken a creative writing class. Listen to our podcast!
Hyde – Daniel Levine – Read it for the podcast. It’s not exactly a revisionist take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, not like that book about Ahab’s wife. Rather, it tells the classic story from Hyde’s perspective. I was suspicious about the premise (it was another book pitched by the publisher), but it’s really well written and Levine does a great job of making sure his story fits into the mechanics of the source story. Giving voice to Hyde — and not going with the easy out of making him the unrestrained id of the Victorian era — Levine manages to create a tense horror story that we thought we knew. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald – I picked this up on the suggestion of DG Myers. I’d never read Fitzgerald, and zoomed through this one over the course of an afternoon. It’s gorgeous and understated, and apparently that’s a hallmark of her work. I picked up the two Modern Library collections of her work recently, and plan on reading more of her work. I’m awfully sad that I won’t get new recommendations from Prof. Myers, but he left a wealth of writing about literature on his blog over the years.
The Cold Song – Linn Ullmann – Read it for the podcast. It’s a lot of books: a murder mystery, a fairy tale, a family drama. I was swept up by the fragility of the characters, the compulsion to lie, the unendingness of a family’s grief, the ways in which loved ones fail to communicate. It’s set in Norway, but it almost feels like another world. It’s such a strange and compelling book, while seeming “normal” on its face, that I can’t really come up with the right words to describe it, beyond “You should read this.” Listen to our podcast: part 1 and part 2!
Mortality – Christopher Hitchens – Another suggestion of DG Myers, who was working on a book about his cancer experience. In our conversation, he lamented that Hitchens died so soon after his cancer diagnosis, because he hoped to see more writing from Hitchens about the process of dying. Ironically, Myers himself died far sooner than he expected. He thought he had another one or two years of life when we spoke in March, but he died six months later. And now those of us who knew him can lament that he too died before he could tell us more about Life on Planet Cancer (the title he settled on for his book). Hitchens’ essays come from the incredibly specific experience of his cancer, but his graceful writing brings it to life.
Not pictured: This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses – Lynne Sharon Schwartz – Read it for the podcast. We met at Bennington in 2013 when I drove up to interview David Gates; they’re both part of the Low Residency MFA faculty. These essays remind me very much of Phillip Lopate’s work, and it makes me wonder if that’s coincidental or if there’s a sort of generational approach to the personal essay that they both characterize. Probably the former. The centerpiece of the book is an essay about her heart surgery, and it’s digressive and detailed and a wonder to read. Listen to our podcast!
All That Is – James Salter – Likely the final book by a great American author I didn’t get around to until 2013. That year, I read A Sport and a Pastime and Solo Faces, and felt stupid that I’d missed out on a hybrid of Hemingway and Henry Miller all these years. His new book extends to cover the shape of a man’s life, with its myriad mistakes and friendships and failed loves and admission of age. For some reason, I felt echoes with Philip Roth’s Everyman, although Salter’s language is more beautiful than Roth’s.
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 2: Purgatorio
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 3: Paradiso – Dante (tr. Durling) – As I mentioned in the intro, I got ahead of the podcast-reading list around April, so I took the opportunity to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I picked this translation on the recommendation of one of my tutors at St. John’s College. It’s a prose translation with line breaks that mirror the poem; he and another tutor I consulted with contended that it’s better to go with a prose translation than a rhyming one, because Dante’s Italian is almost impossible not to rhyme, and it forces a false rhythm on the text. Anyway, it deserves all the accolades, and I weirdly found Purgatorio to be more enjoyable than the Inferno. I think it’s because the souls in Purgatory, even while they suffer awful torments, have hope that they’ll complete their purgation and ascend to Paradise, while the souls in Hell have abandoned all hope. Paradiso, I have to say, was the least enjoyable of the three poems, probably due to being the least concrete. Its abstractness and focus on the church’s founders/pioneers didn’t resonate with me the way the suffering and the stories of the lost did.
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World – George Prochnik – Read it for the podcast. One of the best books I read this year. It’s a biography covering Stefan Zweig’s final years, leading up to his suicide in 1942, but it’s also about Prochnik’s father’s flight from Austria. I found it to be a beautiful work, meditating on the meanings of exile, Zweig’s inability to cope with refugee life in New York despite his privileged position, and the culture that was lost with the rise of Nazism. Prochnik travels to many of Zweig’s waypoints during his last years — England, Manhattan, Westchester, Petropolis — but the book’s most haunting moments come in Austria. It’s a fantastic book (and one I would’ve read regardless of the podcast possibilities). Listen to our podcast!
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson – Read it for the podcast. An enjoyable novel set in 17th century Florence. It’s got sex, murder, religious hypocrisy (hence the need for secrecy), art and aesthetics, plague tableaux, and a true-life lead character in wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo. I’d never read Thomson before, and apparently his hallmark is jumping from genre to genre and style to style. I’m thinking I need to check out more of his work, but as you can see from the rest of the list, I was a little busy this year. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (re) – I reread this one on a whim, just to recapture that feeling of loneliness, of the mystery of experience and the failings of communication. I lead an exciting life.
Nose Down, Eyes Up – Merrill Markoe – Read it for the podcast. It’s a fun novel about a 40-something layabout in LA (named Gil) who realizes one day that he can understand what dogs are saying and communicate with them. Merrill does a great job portraying the world as perceived by dogs, in terms of how they’d logically understand the behavior of humans. They can’t for the life of ’em figure out why we keep picking up their crap and putting it in bags. Listen to our podcast!
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon – Like many of his readers, I’d wondered if Pynchon would write about “modern times,” as in post-9/11. The closest he came to his own era was Vineland, published in 1990 and taking place in 1984. This one treats of the months before and after 9/11, and it’s as weird, elliptical, funny, not-quite-sensical as I’ve come to expect from his novels. There were segments where this one seemed to overlap with William Gibson’s post-9/11 novels, and I think that’s partly because of WG’s status as a Pynchon novitiate, but also because the general response to these times by any novelist with a Big Perspective is to get caught up in the wheels within wheels of conspiracy, malignity and neglect by Forces Larger Than Us. I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and it made for an interesting segue from Inherent Vice, which takes place in the late ’60s and sorta has to shoe-horn the internet (and its ramifications) into a world that really had No Idea What Was Coming.
At Last – Edward St. Aubyn – This series, the Patrick Melrose novels, was recommended to me by Peter Trachtenberg at the end of 2013. Then there was a big New Yorker profile on the author and the ways in which his abusive childhood is mirrored in Melrose’s stories. I devoured the novels in pretty short order. They’re almost a sort of A Dance to the Music of Time, but with a smaller cast of characters and history, and with child-rape at the heart of the whole shebang. I enjoyed the first novel the most, mainly because of the utter vividness of Melrose’s monstrous rapist of a father. The second novel, in which Melrose goes on a drug bender while in New York to claim his father’s ashes, is a close runner-up. A lot of “writing as therapy” can make for bad art, but St. Aubyn does a wonderful job of turning the horrific circumstances of his childhood into a compelling series of novels. They’re necessarily brief; I think too much time in any of these tales would grow tiresome, even if there are characters with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m sure there are plenty of nuances of British culture and class that I missed, but the acid portraits are still pretty amazing.
The Incentive of the Maggot: Poems
The Great Wave: Poems – Ron Slate – Read them for the podcast. Every year, I tell myself that I need to read more poetry, so I was happy to book a podcast with Ron and let myself slow down to read these two collections of his work. I enjoyed the first one more, and he concurred that it’s a better collection, mainly because the lines are given more room to breathe. Many of the poems are grounded in a sort of working life to which I was able to relate: not the labor of the service biz or the factory, but one of Business, where the seeming romance of travel can wear thin and one looks for minor bits of magic to keep from growing numb. Listen to our podcast!
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes – This was recommended to me by Phillip Lopate as one of the best books he’d read in 2013. It’s a novel about a New York writer in Hollywood who falls into a relationship with a suicidal gal. (As in, he first sees her when she’s trying to kill herself by walking into the Pacific.) It’s in a sorta laconic style, where the events, even as they grow more dramatic, aren’t treated with great intensity, even though the narrator is struggling to cope with the relationship. It made me think I need to go re-read Nathanael West next year.
The Horned Man – James Lasdun – Read it for the podcast (we haven’t recorded yet). The novel’s a psychodrama about a college literature professor who may or may not be framed for several murders. There’s a harassment aspect to the professor’s history that gets really weird because, a bunch of years later, the author was accused by a student of harassment and stealing her novel. He wrote a memoir about it called Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, which I’ll be reading before we get together to record. This novel’s enjoyable in its strangeness; once the unreliability of the narrator is established, it’s a little difficult not to fall into a guessing game of “what really happened,” but Lasdun takes the story away from that easy out and proceeds into a surreal conclusion. Podcast coming in 2015!
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor – Jonathan Rose – Read it for the podcast. This is a literary biography of Winston Churchill, and Prof. Rose does a marvelous job of connecting the books and plays WC read and enjoyed with his major life points and policy decisions. I didn’t know all that much about WC’s early career, and this book helps illuminate that period of his life along with the aforementioned literary influences (of course, it’s up to debate as to how influential those literary influences were on WC’s decisions, but Rose makes plausible scenarios for many of them). I was glad to learn that Churchill was among the first science fiction politicians. Listen to our podcast!
Doll Palace – Sara Lippmann – Read it for the podcast. I think we connected because she found the podcast I did with David Gates. This collection of fiction is Sara’s first book, and it’s got some intense and powerful short stories in it. The author told me her work’s been described as “Jewish gothic,” and I think that’s appropriate. There’s a degree of Flannery O’Connor to her stories, even though the setting (and the religion) are quite different. She writes good sentences, creates compelling characters, and puts the reader in some uncomfortable frames of mind. Listen to our podcast!
Last Night – James Salter – I was waiting down at the local library for my wife’s bus from NYC (the bus stop is in the library parking lot), and took this slim collection of stories off the shelf. I devoured one story during the wait, checked the book out and read the rest of it over the next 24 hours. I’m still embarrassed not to have discovered Salter until 2013. The title story, about an assisted suicide, has a Poe-like twist/change of tone, but it’s not all about storytelling trickery.
Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov – Read it for the podcast. Really fun collection of essays about the author’s career as a cab-driver. He published a previous book on the subject, but that one focused on the work-week, and this one covers Dmitry’s time from his first shift to his last, from Boston to Chicago. He’s also a painter, and the book includes a number of his drawings made while sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab. (Not while driving.) Listen to our podcast!
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer – A few guests and pals told me I need to read her work, and recommended this one. I was pretty disappointed in it; the big twist was pretty obvious to me about a quarter of the way in, and it made the rest of the read a slog until The Big Reveal. It’s about an author and his wife, on their way to pick up a Nobel-like award for his fiction. She narrates it and tells their story. It’s laden with Important Gender Issues to the detriment of not having believable or interesting characters. A pal asked me what book I read in 2014 disappointed me the most, and I didn’t hesitate to cite this one. That’s what I get for listening to my guests.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton – I was really not expecting the degree of antisemitism that cropped up early in this one. I loved The Age of Innocence when I read it a few years ago, and figured this would be along similar lines, but focused on the female character’s prospects. In broad terms, I was right, but the characterization of Rosedale and “his race” was pretty vile. I’m no PC warrior or anything, but stereotyping Jews (and this wasn’t focused on class-conscious merchant Jews, which would have been bad enough) is the mark of a second-rate mind (at best). I rallied on, and did enjoy much of the book. In fact, Rosedale’s bluntness turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of it, but I had this nettle pricking at me throughout the book.
Backing Into Forward: A Memoir – Jules Feiffer – Read it for the podcast. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Feiffer would follow through on our podcast-date, but I wanted to be prepared if he suddenly said, “Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.” His memoir, published in 2010, covers a lot of Feiffer’s dizzying career as a cartoonist, novelist, illustrator and screenwriter. He knows how to tell a story, as he’s proved for decades, and weaves comedic tales about his mother-obsessed childhood, his scams and meltdowns in the U.S. Army, his cross-country pilgrimage for a girl had moved on, and his political evolution. He’s led an immensely rich life, and his writing conveys the importance of the outside world on his art, and vice versa. I went into the book expecting an old man’s reminiscences, and was pleasantly surprised by how charged the prose was, and how laugh-out-loud funny Feiffer is. Listen to our podcast!
I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists – Richard Gehr – Read it for the podcast. Wildly entertaining profiles of a dozen cartoonists at the New Yorker, as well as two of the cartoon editors. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a blast to read about these cartoonists’ histories, their influences, their work habits, and how they’ve seen the magazine and the rest of the market change. It’s based on interviews that Gehr did with the cartoonists and editors (and which I used as research for a few of my podcasts this year). Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Mr. Wicker – Maria Alexander – Read it for the podcast. This one’s an urban fantasy novel (I think; it may be part of another genre) that reminded me in part of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman comics. It’s about a blocked writer who commits suicide, only to discover herself in a library of children’s hidden memories, governed by a sensual, scorched guy named Mr. Wicker. She gets restored to life, which sets in motion a plot by Mr. Wicker to get out of his eternal job assignment. It’s not a genre I do much reading in, so I was happy to find the book nicely written, carrying the reader along with a good deal of suspense, and not piling on unnecessary “rules” of the magic world that some writers use after they write themselves into a corner. Listen to our podcast!
The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany – Donald Westlake (ed. Levi Stahl) – Read it for the podcast. Past guest Dmitry Samarov suggested I get in touch with Levi Stahl, the editor of this book, and get him on the show, and I’m awfully glad he did. I’ve probably read a dozen novels by the late Donald Westlake (he wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms), but this was the first exposure I’ve had to his nonfiction. If you have any experience with his crime novels, you won’t be surprised to find that he was a wonderful writer even when he wasn’t crafting Parker or Dortmunder stories. This one’s a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the craft and business of writing, particularly in a genre like crime fiction (which Westlake refers to as “detective fiction”). It’s refreshing to read someone who’s so well-versed in the history of the genre, and so willing to talk about the economics of the business. His essays, reviews, appreciations, and letters are a joy to read. Podcast coming in 2015.
Give + Take – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. Enjoyable crime novel about a piano player who doubles as a thief, and the singer-thief he falls for. Having just finished that book of Westlake’s writing, it was little step down, but Westlake was a master, so that’s no big knock. Fitch carries the story along quite well, and the sections on the working life of the piano-player are awfully engaging. Podcast coming in 2015.
Senseless – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. A trade negotiator gets abducted, and gets brutally tortured by his Occupy-esque abductors. The kicker is, his whole experience is captured on live-streaming cameras, and the abductors are raising funds by having viewers vote on his fate. The torture, dragged out over weeks, is absolutely horrifying, and you really should not read this book if you have a weak stomach. I’m supposed to interview the author about a crime novel he wrote under a pseudonym, but I’m sure we’ll have some words about this one, and how he was able to write it. Podcast coming in 2015.
All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park – Read it for the podcast. Boy, was this a weird one. It’s a metafictional novel in three parts. First, it’s about an alternate world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War with a Man in the High Castle narrative about a future world won by the Union, only both stories are writing each other. The next two segments get really weird, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. The writing’s gorgeous, but I felt that the metafiction was a little too opaque for me, so I’m going to reread Mr. Park’s four-volume White Tyger series to see if that helps me make more sense of this one. There’s a lot of good stuff in this, but metafiction is so difficult to pull off, and I fear I didn’t have enough of a background to get everything I should have out of this. Podcast coming in 2015.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade – Walter Kirn – Read it for the podcast, I hope. At least, the author has said he’s up for recording with me sometime. This may be the best nonfiction book I read in 2014. It’s about “Clark Rockefeller,” who turned out to be a German national named Christian Gerhartsreiter. I was fascinated by the Rockefeller case when it came out that he was a fraud; I couldn’t imagine how his wife went so many years without figuring out her husband’s false identity. Turns out that the author, Walter Kirn, knew Rockefeller for years, and also never suspected the fraud. As Rockefeller is exposed and then charged with murder, Kirn grows more engrossed in the case, and his (and our) propensity to be fooled, to want to be fooled, by the promise of high society. Kirn does a fantastic job of balancing his reporting on the case with his own anecdotes and analysis, playing up his own weaknesses and trying to explore how a novelist, who’s so immersed in understanding character, can fail to see through such an audacious fraud. There’s a degree to which “Rockefeller”‘s ability to take interlocutors’ words and spin new stories to draw them in put me in mind of Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius“; something about not only the construction of new worlds, but the way they come to infect and permeate what we think of as reality. I can’t recommend this book enough. Podcast coming in 2015.
Not pictured: A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park – The first in a four-book series about an alternate earth and a changeling princess who was hidden in our world (speaking of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”). As I mentioned in the previous Paul Park item, I started this series to get a better grasp of Paul’s work, so this is technically For The Podcast. It has some deliberate nods to John Crowley’s Aegypt cycle of books, although I hope not the final volume, which I couldn’t fathom. This one does a good job evoking the alternate world, alluding to its strange history and laws, while bringing us up to speed on a 20-year plot to hide the princess who can be the salvation of Roumania against those nasty Germans. There’s a scene in the afterlife that’s absolutely breathtaking. Podcast coming in 2015.
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather – The last book I finished in 2014. One of my podcast-guests considers it The Great American Novel, so I was expecting a very different book than the one I got. It’s about a pair of Catholic missionaries in the American southwest after the Mexican-American War, and it’s almost a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel. I literally had no idea what to expect from the book, but the title left me thinking it’d be a Whiskey Priest tale, with awful, dissolute people abounding. Instead, it’s a very Catholic novel. At least, I’m hoping that’s why I felt so disconnected from it. It’s a beautiful work, with the landscape serving as a lead character, but I did feel as though its outlook was somehow alien to me. At first, I attributed it to the 1850s SW setting, but one of my favorite novels (The Leopard) is set in 1860s Italy, so that wasn’t it. I think the purity of the two missionaries’ vision of the world (not that it was naive), demonstrates a type of grace that I just don’t feel in my life. Also, I was watching season 3 of Breaking Bad at the same time, and that’s a very different vision of New Mexico right there.
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And that’s it for 2014! At the moment, I’m in the second book of Paul Park’s White Tyger series, as I mentioned, along with Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve got plenty of podcast-related reading for 2015, but I’m also hoping to get to Climates (Andre Maurois), Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, more Stefan Zweig, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things (a re-read), and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (David Maurer).
Why don’t you go check out the past editions of this writeup?
“I hate to find out that people I admire are schmucks.”
Legendary comedy writer, producer and performer Merrill Markoe let me into her home after seeing pix of my adorable greyhounds, and we got to spend an hour talking about how she co-created Late Night with David Letterman, how she was too worried about getting canceled to appreciate changing the nature of comedy on TV, which show she would love to write for if she was starting out today, what Letterman of 25 years ago would have thought of Letterman of today, and more! Along the way, she proves Christopher Hitchens wrong (women can be very funny), weighs in on Steven Colbert’s prospects taking over the Late Show, and talks about her literary influences and favorite cartoonists. And then we get overrun by her dogs, including Wally Markoe:
“Had I been able to rewrite the whole thing from the ground up, it would’ve been far preferable not to be involved personally [with the host of Late Night] and to only have been a writer. To have doubled up on that was a real big mistake.”
We also find out about her favorite Stooge, The Merrill Markoe Method of Sleepywriting (which she learned while recovering from a double-hip replacement), how she learned to stop sweating the details and start cartooning, and what she fears will be the first line of her obit. (BONUS: I offer a greyhound adoption PSA of sorts and tell silly stories about my dogs.)
About our Guest
Merrill Markoe has written for TV series such as Newhart and Sex and the City, and co-created the original David Letterman show, for which she won five Emmys. She’s published eight books: four collections of funny essays (How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me!, Merrill Markoe’s Guide to Love, What the Dogs Have Taught Me: And Other Amazing Things I’ve Learned, and Cool, Calm & Contentious) and four novels (It’s My F—ing Birthday, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down, The Psycho Ex Game (with Andy Prieboy), and Nose Down, Eyes Up) and has written for a wide variety of publications including but not limited to NYTimes, LATimes, Time, Rolling Stone, Real Simple, Vanity Fair, etc. etc. She also does standup and did a number of her own specials for HBO in the 80s and 90s, including being a performer writer on Not Necessarily the News. She had a talk radio show for a while and was a funny lifestyle reporter for local news for a few years. Follow her on twitter at @merrillmarkoe.
Credits: This episode’s music is Pets by Porno for Pyros. The conversation was recorded in Ms. Markoe’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Wally Markoe by me. B/W photo of Ms. Markoe by John Dolan.
Note: DG Myers died on Sept. 26, 2014, about 6 months after we recorded this episode. You can read my contribution to his festscrhift here.
“I would take an evil delight in asking my colleagues what they were reading, and watching the look of panic on their faces. Because everyone reads scholarship now, and very few primary materials. Our academic specialties are an inch wide and a mile deep.”
Literature professor and book critic DG Myers is dying of cancer, but that doesn’t mean he’s planning to go gentle into that good night. In a far-ranging conversation, we talk about why he believes university English departments will barely outlast him, how he made the move from Southern Baptist to Orthodox Judaism (getting recircumcised a few times along the way), what he’d like to be remembered for, why the idea of The Western Canon is a canard, which books and authors he’s trying to get to before he dies, who he regrets not reading before now, and the identity of the one author he’d like to hear from. Give it a listen!
“Every Shabbos I thank Hashem for my cancer, because it has focused me on what’s good and enabled me to ignore what’s not.”
We also talk about his plans to dispose of his library, the joys of studying under Stanley Elkin, the relation of books to moral life, the things that cease to matter in the face of a terminal diagnosis, the failure of English departments in the age of Theory, the thorny question of whether creative writing can be taught, and what writers and readers should do to save the humanities. Also, check out the list of books that came up in our conversation.
About our Guest
DG Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, a work of literary scholarship. He has been a critic and literary historian for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities, and was formerly the fiction critic for Commentary. He has written for Jewish Ideas Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals. He is working on a memoir, Life on Planet Cancer, and lives in Columbus, OH, with his wife Naomi and their four children: Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam (“Mimi”). He writes at A Commonplace Blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is First We Take Manhattan by Jennifer Warnes. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Myers’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Prof. Myers by me.
Today’s episode of The Virtual Memories Show is a little offbeat, but I have faith in you, dear listener!
I take something that seems obscure, and it leads you to somewhere that is not where you expect.
First, philosopher, musicologist, clarinetist and author David Rothenberg joins us to talk about his new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, and its accompanying CD. It’s a fun conversation about rhythms and meta-rhythms, 17-year cicadas, David’s lifetime of music, the joy of bringing different people’s worlds together, how aesthetic preference sorta trumps survival of the fittest. the development of bugstep, and the secret to finding a rewarding job teaching the humanities. (And, really, you should listen just to find out that secret.)
These points in your life, you often wonder what would have happened if you’d taken the other course. I could’ve gone into theology or some bloody thing. Instead I wound up in science and I’m atheist now.
Then (around the 43:00 mark), we have a conversation with Clive Bennett, the CEO of Halo Pharma, a pharmaceutical contract manufacturing organization. I met Clive through my day job, and found him so delightfully literate, discursive and thoughtful that I asked him to record a segment on the podcast. Once I had him cornered, I asked him why he’d gone into the sciences, given his artistic, historical, musical and literary interests. (Really, I think it was just a condemnation of myself for not doing more with my time.) He decided to bring his Kindle along to reveal what he’s reading and why (and reveal himself in the process). It’s two men talking about the choices we make and those that are made for us.
About our Guests
Philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful, Why Birds Sing, and Thousand-Mile Song. He is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, and he has nine CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by Jazziz Magazine in 1995. He lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.
Clive Bennett has been CEO and president of Halo Pharma since 2008. He’s spent 40 years in the pharma industry, including 23 years at Hoechst Marion Roussel (now sanofi), as well as Fisons Limited, Evolutec, and Patheon. He’s also a voracious reader, history buff, opera-goer, and a lot of other things that don’t go on a CV.
Credits: This episode’s music is Katydid Prehistory by David Rothenberg. The conversation with David Rothenberg was recorded at his childhood home in Westport, CT on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Clive Bennett was recorded at his office in Whippany, NJ on the same equipment. The intro and outdo were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of David playing with cicadas by Charles Lindsay. Photo of Clive & me by Sally Langa.
“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 . . .”
Click on the pic above to embiggen
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:
- Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
- Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
- Short Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
- The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
- A whole ton of Flannery O’Connor
- Austerlitz – WG Sebald
- History of Rome, books I-X – Livy
- Selected Stories – Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press ed.)
- World War Z – Max Brooks
- Money – Martin Amis