It’s 2018! That means it’s time for my giganto chronological writeup of all the books I finished in 2017! (Not including comics/graphic novels. Oh, and (re) means it’s a reread.)
Click pic to embiggen
Thanks to the resources of my county’s libraries, I was able to get hard copies of all the books I read as e-books/e-proofs for the big group picture above, except for Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff.
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Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love – Brad Gooch – This is a biography of the thirteenth century Islamic poet, Rumi, as well as a rescue-salvage operation for his contemporary new-age/wind-chime reputation. The author does a wonderful job of research, culling the various writings by and on Rumi to find a story that’s both mystical and mundane. He manages gets at the beauty of Rumi’s poems and his progression into Sufism, but also captures some of the day-to-day aspects of life that somehow remain universal. Rumi led a remarkable life (hence, the volume of stories about him that survive to today), and seemed to propose inclusive visions of religion that we could all probably learn from nowadays. Gooch also provides new translations of some of Rumi’s verse, making Rumi’s Secret even more of a joy. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2015 podcast)
The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries – Jessa Crispin – I love me some literary pilgrimages, so Jessa Crispin’s travelogue about “exiles, expats and ex-countries” was right up my alley. She opened my eyes to a lot of literary figures and artists I knew little to nothing about. She also ties her own personal meltdowns into the story, and if that sorta thing bothers you, then steer clear. But I liked reading about her crackups and relationship failures and how they fueled this project. Sure, it can get a little dramatic, but that’s sorta the point, especially with chapters devoted to wives/partners of Great Writers, and the restrictions they had to deal with. It’s an illuminating book, gracefully written, and filled with lives that’ll show you what it can really cost to make great art. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2014 podcast)
The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song – Ben Yagoda – This worked as a compliment to Ed Ward‘s History of Rock & Roll that I read a few weeks earlier (at the end of 2016). It covers popular music from a songwriting perspective, focusing on the Tin Pan Alley writers and the music industry as it developed in New York City. Yagoda has a clean, lively prose and offers up his well-thought-out opinions, not just the facts, on the trends and waves in popular music. He centers on the notion of the Great American Songbook, and details the efforts of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and others. If there’s a working thesis, it’s to ask, “Why were such amazing, long-lived songs being written in the first half of the 20th century, and why isn’t anything remotely that good being written now?” I devoured this one, on the strength of subject matter and writing style. • Listen to our podcast
Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto – Jessa Crispin – I dug it, but I don’t think I’m qualified to judge it, exactly. I mean, I just don’t have the perspective. I could try picking into the logic of her argumentation, but that’s really just a technique people use to invalidate an entire worldview because of a lack of airtight logic, not to engage and debate. And it seems like she wants engagement and debate about the unfortunate directions that feminism has undertaken. I will say that the book provided me with some perspective on the systemic challenges women face, beyond the theoretical ideas I had on that, and it sorta validated my feeling that “everything is feminist because I’m a woman and I say so” is an empty construct. It’s not an overly prescriptive book, which I think is for the best. I’m interested in re-reading it in the post-Weinstein/#metoo era. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2014 podcast)
Memoir: A History – Ben Yagoda – I didn’t get it. It’s what it says it is, a history of the memoir, but somehow I felt like it was missing some integral component of what the memoir is. A little while after reading it, I mentioned it to a heavy-duty memoir writer who said, “No, he’s missing the point. You’re right.” But that conversation was a while back and I don’t remember what else the writer told me. • Listen to our podcast
A Mother’s Tale – Phillip Lopate – Phillip Lopate is the Michael Jordan of writing personal essays, by which I don’t just mean, “he’s really good,” but, “he writes personal essays better than just about anyone does whatever they do.” More than 30 years ago, Lopate (brother of WNYC interviewer Leonard Lopate) recorded a series of interviews with his mother. He listened to the tapes in 2015 for the first time and began transcribing them. That evolved into this extended essay about his mother. It includes a lot of swathes of their dialogue, which somehow adds to the poignancy of the project; Lopate mentions at the outset that his mother in 1984 may have felt that having her words on tape would protect her from what she felt were the exaggerations of previous essays Lopate had written about her. His authorial perspective from 2016 — he’s older now than his mother was when they recorded — creates an even more complex portrait of his mother and their relationship. She had a fascinating, Dreiser-esque life, in terms of the social forces arrayed against her and her husband, and it’s an absolute joy to read 41-year-old Phillip’s attempts at drawing our her story and 72-year-old Phillip’s attempts at understanding and converting it all. Of course, I say that as someone who has a Jewish mother. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2013 podcast)
Note Book – Jeff Nunokawa – A professor of English literature at Princeton, Jeff began posting through Facebook’s quasi-blogging Notes feature 10 years ago, using the medium to write brief essays about books and life — not necessarily in that order. Some of the entries are just a sentence long, some a few paragraphs, accompanied by a photo, and this 2015 book collects 250 of them. The Notes are personal without being hyper-specific, and beautifully illustrate a life in process and a love of great books. Nunokawa’s prose style is easy and flowing, likely a result of deeply incorporating great literature but rejecting academic jargon. He still posts every day, so you can follow him on FB and start reading the new ones. One of the fascinating things about Facebook’s Notes feature is that you can’t add hyperlinks; the only linked text is names of other FB members. This limitation — tying the internet’s hand behind its back — permits more self-contained writing than the standard blog format, where writers compulsively link out to supporting materials, jokes, etc. (I do it all the time). Paradoxically, this limitation makes the “web-to-book” aspect of note book — a phenomenon I otherwise detest — perfectly normal. Admittedly, the book still suffers from exclusion; I’m sure Nunokawa could have come up with 250 worthy alternate posts to replace the ones collected here. Still, it’s a beautiful work, filled with meditations on literature, family, and an unhealthy obsession with Fernando Torres. • Listen to our podcast
Private Citizens: A Novel – Tony Tulathimutte – This is a debut novel by someone far younger than me, so of course I was prepared to hold it in disdain. It turned out to be awfully good, fueling my chagrin at not being the voice of my literary generation. It’s about 4 Stanford graduates in 2007-2008, only a few years after graduation. Even pre-financial crash, their lives are not what they’d hoped for. While the lead characters represent types — writer, scientist, coder, activist — they seem to struggle with the expectations of those identities, as though they suspect they might be better off doing something else. The various plots are entertaining, the characters are very distinct and memorable, and there’s a zeitgeist-y quality to the novel that I enjoyed. But what I found most rewarding was my own knowledge that this experience wasn’t any different than what I and my pals went through in the mid-’90s as we started our post-school careers. Sure, the technology is more advanced, but the mindset, the realization that everything you prepared for or studied in school might not help in the real world, isn’t “millennial”; it’s human. In 2002, I spoke on a panel at my college, a hippie, design-your-own-curriculum institution in western Massachusetts. My big advice, 9 years after my graduation was, “Don’t focus all your efforts in one narrow field, because even if you get a job in that area after you graduate, you’re probably going to hate it by the time you’re 25. Learn to learn, and you’ll probably be a lot happier.” No idea how the students took it. I doubt I was the most sympathetic figure to them; after all, I may be the only graduate in the history of that institution who says, “I’m a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry,” but that’s the nature of youth. My point is, Private Citizens captures that moment of free-fall beautifully, and evokes the time and place of mid-previous-decade San Francisco without being so specific it couldn’t also be about Generation X in Seattle. • Listen to our podcast
What Belongs to You – Garth Greenwell – It’s a very interior, observed novel narrated by an openly gay American teacher in Bulgaria. The “plot” is that he meets a hustler and struggles with his feelings for him; bad news from America sends him on a reverie about his youth while he walks through the city of Sofia. But really, this novel is about desire, shame, the scars of youth and how we carry them all our days, and what words mean to us. Greenwell brings us into his narrator’s mind and memories, as perfectly captures the uprootedness one feels in a foreign country, where one barely knows the language. In his narrator’s case, there’s a universal language of queer culture that allows him to communicate even though his Bulgarian is sparse. It’s deeply intense, brief book that evokes the tensions that exist in life and love (gay or straight or otherwise). • Listen to our podcast
Snowed Under – Antje Ravic Strubel – I don’t remember enough of this one, sad to say, to tell you anything substantial. I read it in prep for a podcast with the author, one of the guests of the 2017 Festival Neue Literatur (for which I recorded with Garth Greenwell (above) and Barbara Epler, the publisher at New Directions). I worked up some questions, and headed into NYC for our session on a Sunday morning. At a traffic light about 10 minutes from home, I checked my e-mail, and got a note from her saying that she’d been struck with laryngitis; we wouldn’t be able to record, since she also had to do a panel that afternoon and needed to save her voice until then. So. It’s about people living and visiting a ski resort in eastern Europe, a few years after the reunification of Germany. It’s told through interlocking short stories, but sorta centers on a gay female couple, one of whom gets lost after an argument with her partner. There were some entertaining segments, like with the pre-Fall postal spy who keeps spying on the mail because he doesn’t know what else to do, but I’m afraid that it didn’t stick with me very much.
Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives – Sarah Williams Goldhagen – In the late 1980s, one of my favorite comic books was Mr. X, a science fiction story about an art deco city whose architecture was driving its inhabitants insane. So I was primed for this book, which explores the way architecture and the built environment influence our behavior, including the ways bad design can damage our mental and physical health. Goldhagen builds on discoveries in cognitive neuroscience to examine how the best and worst landscapes and buildings affect us, and provides wonderful descriptions of the good, the bad and the ugly. Her section on the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (designed by Louis I. Kahn), and the subtleties that went into its design, are worth the price of admission alone. It’s a wonderfully engaging book (and not focused on experts in architecture or neurocognition) about the importance of design in day-to-day life, and what the means for buildings and landscapes, as opposed to an iPhone or a Michael Graves tea-kettle. If you’ve got a limited visual imagination like I do, you’ll be happy to find that there are a ton of photos and illustrations that accompany the text. This book will make you see your lived world differently (although it may make you lament that your built environment is pretty banal). • Listen to our podcast
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (re) – This was a re-read, because it was on my Kindle when I was between new books and I thought, “That’ll work for some bedtime reading.” According to All The Books I’ve Read Since 1989, this is the 4th time I’ve read it, yet I’m still surprised that Romero doesn’t get killed in the big bullfight scene. Apparently, when I read it in 2012, I thought the prose was flat and ineffective, but this time around, I was drawn in more by Jake’s not-quite-hardboiled depiction of his circle’s antics in Paris and Pamplona between the wars. Their desperation felt clearer to me, especially as it contrasts with the more legit enthusiasm the locals have for the fiesta around St. Fermin. Having it rendered by a narrator who was unmanned during the war gave it a greater degree of tension that I’d previous recognized. It’s not quite like measuring myself against re-readings of Anna Karenina or The Iliad, but this does make for a pretty good touchstone.
Moving the Palace – Charif Majdalani – This is a beautiful little (200 pages) novel that just knocked me out. It’s about a Lebanese explorer in the early 20th century who spends years in Sudan working for the British, buys a palace that was disassembled and carried by a caravan across north Africa, and endeavors to get back to Beirut with it. It’s absolutely enchanting, reminding me alternately of some of my favorite novels, like The Leopard, Invisible Cities, and Sword of Honor, but never to the point of pastiche. I was utterly gripped by it and devoured it over a weekend (like I said, only 200 pages, but hey). It’s almost a fairy tale, but too grounded in the history of colonialism and the 1914-1918 War to be fanciful. Narrated by the explorer’s grandson, we know how it will turn out until we realize we don’t. I have a feeling I’ll be foisting this book on people for quite a while. • Listen to our podcast
Toscanelli’s Ray – Wallis Wilde-Menozzi -This is a novel mainly set in Florence, Italy, and taking place over about 15 hours during the summer solstice in 1994. It revolves around a dissolute Italian botanist, his American ex-wife, a Nigerian prostitute and her toddler, and the lives they touch (including that of a toad living in a garden). The author is primarily a poet, and her intense, compressed use of language has to stretch to accommodate the narrative needs of a novel. It’s got sections of great beauty, and the interweaving of the characters’ lives is handled deftly. Wilde-Menozzi brings us into the everyday life of Florence — its political scandals, its echoes of WWII and the ’66 flood, the church, the sufferings of its immigrants and refugees, petty office squabbles — while also connecting us to the eternal. It took me some time to get into it, and I weirdly identified more with the male characters and their practical problems (how to get out of a conversation with a family friend, which slides to use in a presentation, when to confront a neighbor over her illegal archeological dig) than the more undirected/existential concerns of the women. Which probably says more about me than the book. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2013 podcast)
Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem – George Prochnik – During the Bush administration, the New York Sun, a slim neoconservative newspaper, began tagging along with our office’s Wall Street Journal subscription. It was usually tossed out unread, but I opened it up on a whim one morning, only to find facing articles on the publication of Gershom Scholem’s notebooks and the potential impact of Pau Gasol’s trade to the LA Lakers. I thought, “Is it possible that I’ve gone Tyler Durden, and when I think I’m asleep I’m actually editing this newspaper’s culture section?” That’s a little of how I felt when I saw this book was coming out. Scholem is a famed scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and a pre-independence settler in Palestine. Prochnik writes about Scholem’s development as a thinker, his intricate and frustrating relationship with doomed thinker Walter Benjamin, the historical sweep of Europe beginning in World War I, and the evolution of Zionism as a concept and a reality. Prochnik also closes out each chapter with his own story about moving to Israel in the 1980s with his wife, starting a family, trying to become a scholar, and how Scholem’s work affected him during that time. He doesn’t shirk from depicting the willful blindness to Palestinians’ lives, but also frames it in the Jerusalem that Scholem lived in, from the mid-’20s until his death in 1982. It’s a fascinating life, and Prochnik is careful not to draw too many parallels to his own experience. The book does make a frustrating chronological jump near the end and doesn’t go too deeply into Scholem’s reaction to post-1948 Israel, beyond his contention that the government should have returned the West Bank to Jordan afer the war in ’67. But it’s a wonderful book that taught me a lot about the mystical tradition in Judaism, the guy who was responsible for making it a subject of academic study, and the limits of human imagination in the time leading up to the Holocaust. I’ll wait for Prochnik’s follow-up on the Gasol era in LA. • Listen to our podcast! (and listen to our 2014 podcast)
Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator – R.O. Blechman – This is a wonderful little book along the lines of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Blechman is a legendary figure in illustration, advertising, and cartooning; his signature wavy line has been aped for decades, but his wit is impossible to copy. This book consists of letters to a fictitious up-and-coming illustrator, providing career advice, relationship tips and other wisdom accumulated over the decades (it was published in 2009 shortly before Blechman turned 80). The prose style will sweep you along, and Blechman’s combination of graphic and prose influences are on full display throughout the work. Even though I’m not an illustrator, I enjoyed it immensely and took away plenty about my own artistic pursuits, although it also made me a little wistful about untraveled roads earlier in my career. Blechman is a treasure and this book is a true gift. • Listen to our podcast
Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 – Edward Sorel – A delightful, brief work about the 1936 sex scandal involving the actress Mary Astor (born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke). The author, illustrator Ed Sorel, fell into her story in the mid-’60s and got around to making a book about it 50 years later. It features dozens of Sorel’s wonderful illustrations and tells the story of Astor’s awful custody battle (along with plenty of editorial interjections). The dozens of illustrations are gorgeous, and the whole project leaves me wondering if Sorel should’ve been making hybrid books like these for years, rather than launching into the project in his 80s. On the other hand, Jules Feiffer was in his mid-80s when he figured out the long-form graphic novel was his metier, so sometimes we just need time. I’m still waiting to find mine, but I suspect it’s “idle chitchat with people who are far more creative and disciplined about their art than I am.”
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf – One of my embarrassing literary admissions is that I’ve never been able to finish a Virginia Woolf book. In high school, a progressive humanities teacher foisted The Waves on us, and I was so turned off by that book that I didn’t even give Woolf a try until a few years ago. When I did, with To The Lighthouse, it felt like something assigned to me, not something that I wanted to read. In the interest of full disclosure, I was concerned that this might be a weird chauvinistic response on my part, because I do tend to read many more books by men than women. Still, I just couldn’t go on with that one, and put it aside. Inspired by my conversation R.O. Blechman, I gave Mrs. Dalloway. It’s only 200 pages, so I was able to finish it by Sunday. There were portions I enjoyed, but it’s a book I respected more than liked. On the plus side, I don’t think it’s because of a bias against women’s writing, but an exhaustion with high modernism. The book is layered pretty deeply with literary allusions, and while they’re not overbearing, they do tend to make the point of, “If you’re not well-educated, you’re going to miss a lot of what’s going on in this book.” Woolf does manage to create some wonderfully sad and frustrated characters, so I’m not saying that it’s simply a “novel of ideas” or just a construct of erudition, but at the same time, I had a sense of distance from the whole narrative. I’m guessing I’d feel the same way if I went back to Joyce or the other modernists, alienated by that Olympian perspective on human life, even after I gave myself points for catching the references and laughing at the wordplay. Man, have my literary tastes gotten weird. . . .
This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz – I thought this was a novel when I started it on my Kindle, but it turned out to be a collection of (connected) short stories, which made the jump from between the first two stories pretty jarring. I liked but resented Diaz’ first novel, feeling it to be a little too unacknowledgedly reliant on the comics of Los Bros. Hernandez (he acknowledged that debt in subsequent press). This collection is about love-gone-wrong, focusing on the Dominican, pop-culture enthused characters Diaz loves best. The back cover has a blurb from Oprah’s magazine that just says, “Vulgar, brave, and poetic,” which sums it up pretty well. I like reading the lives Diaz evokes, the coarseness of their desires and the strangeness of their lives in the DR and how they integrate (and fail to) in the US. His prose ranges from cool vernacular to brief high-blown flights, and manages to keep a rhythm throughout. I was less resentful about his work after finishing this one.
This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information – Kyle Cassidy – Several years ago, photojournalist Kyle Cassidy attended a midwinter meeting of the American Librarians Association to photograph and interview several of the attendees. The results were published on Slate.com and went super-viral. That led to a bigger project at the ALA’s national meeting, along with trips to a variety of unconventional libraries across the country. Combine that with new essays on the importance of libraries from authors like Neil Gaiman, Jude Deveraux, Cory Doctorow, and George R.R. Martin, and you’ve got a fantastic book. Cassidy’s portraits are lovely, capturing a broad range of people and quickly dispensing with the cliches and stereotypes about librarians. He accompanies each portrait with a quote from that subject’s interview, and intersperses the book with the aforementioned essays, along with his own pieces about those libraries that he visited. It’s a wonderful book that champions a critical (and underfunded) component of civic life in America. If you haven’t been to your local library in a while, you may be surprised at the role it plays in your community, especially for less privileged people. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2012 podcast!)
Lovecraft Country: A Novel – Matt Ruff – Uproariously entertaining novel about Lovecraftian horror, cults, and — oh, yeah — race relations in America. It takes place in 1954-55 and centers on an African-American family in Chicago. There’s a hidden legacy in their family history that attracts the attention of a coven of “natural philosophers” that want to cleanse the world. Each chapter dives into a different sub-genre of horror and science fiction, sort of like the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and the chapters overlap and culminate in a heist tale of sorts. The writing isn’t beautifully poetic, but propels each story along masterfully. Now, there is a caveat that I should offer up. As I mentioned, the book is about a black family in mid-century America, and how they deal with racism is just as important as how they deal with shoggoths. In one chapter, a character discovers that she can temporarily become caucasian (The Jekyll in Hyde Park), and is made painfully aware of the structural advantages of that world. I had some misgivings/uneasiness over the fact that the book’s author is white, because I’m pretty sure a black author would have a deeper set of experiences to draw on. That said, the book never descends into white-guilt bathos, but treats its protagonists like human beings who are trying to make their way in a world where even the pentagrams are redlined. For all that, it’s a heck of a good novel. • Listen to our podcast
AREA X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer – I don’t know where to start. My mind was pretty blown by AREA X (a.k.a. The Southern Reach Trilogy). This series of novels — Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance — is about a mysterious ecological/environmental “disaster” in which a zone in northern Florida becomes cut off from human contact. An invisible barrier of sorts separates the area from us, with only a single known entry point. The government establishes a base next to it (the Southern Reach), and for the next several decades, expeditions are sent in to explore it. Very few of them come back, and those who do are . . . changed. The first book is the journal of a member of the last expedition, while the second and third books are about the aftermath of that trip. It’s a page turner, whether you’re reading about the mysteries of the zone’s inimicalness to human life and technology, the bizarre topographical anomaly filled with a strange sermon-like text, the office politics of the Southern Reach, or the found texts and journals of past expeditions. It’s an amazing novel, and if my description’s a little reminiscent of my past writeup about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, it’s not accidental. The alienness of Area X, the shortcomings of human communication and intelligence, the weird dopplegangers the zone creates, are all threads that VanderMeer picks up from Lem’s book (and presumably a lot of other SF that I haven’t read), but without seeming derivative in the slightest. An amazing achievement.
Bad Monkeys: A Novel – Matt Ruff – This is a delightfully twisted novel about a woman who may work for a secret organization dedicated to ridding the world of evil. She may also be nuts. In the psychiatric wing of a Las Vegas jail, she spins her tale to a doctor, unreliably narrating her journey into the world of The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, aka “Bad Monkeys”. The narrator could easily have fallen into stock “tough girl” cliches, but Ruff instead creates a striking and intriguing character with a weird but unerring moral compass. It’s a thrill-ride of a book, with some amazing twists and turns. The ending runs up all at once in a Philip K. Dick-ian inversion of layer upon layer of reality, but it all fits together wonderfully. • Listen to our podcast
KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr – John Crowley – I’m going to go with what Liz Hand said in this year’s Guest List episode: “KA follows the adventures of an immortal crow whose myriad lifetimes dovetail with those of various humans, from Neolithic Northern Europe to near-future America. It’s a beautiful, haunting meditation on the emergence of human consciousness, on death, the afterlife, and our increasingly tenuous relationship with the natural world. Crowley is a brilliant writer, and this is one of his very finest novels.” I was all set for it to be my favorite book in 2017, until I came across The Peregrine (see below). That means it’s not even my favorite bird-related book in 2017. Still, it’s an amazing novel that reminded me how good contemporary writing can be. If Crowley was talking straight during our podcast last summer about how KA is the last major work of his career, that’s a hell of a capstone for the guy who wrote Little, Big, the Aegypt quartet, and Engine Summer. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2013 one)
Totalitopia – John Crowley – Some previously uncollected stories and columns by Crowley, along with a new story and a Q&A that helped inform my recent podcast with him. Even Crowley’s minor work is worth reading, and it’s a fine, small collection. I enjoyed the title piece, with its intriguing model for developing SF ideas, and his essay on Paul Park reminds me that I really need to sit down and record with Paul sometime. I’m glad the publisher is putting this series out. • Listen to our podcast (and listen to our 2013 one)
Playboy Laughs: The Comedy, Comedians, and Cartoons of Playboy – Patty Farmer – I wanted to like this one, but it didn’t quite work. This book is the mid-point of a trilogy about the impact of Playboy — the magazine, the clubs, the brand — on culture. The previous book was about music, while this one is about comedy, both the comedians who played the circuit of Playboy Clubs and Resorts, and the cartoonists and illustrators who appeared in its pages. The author did a ton of interviews with both of those cohorts, and faithfully renders their stories. The problem (for me) is, the book isn’t set up as an oral history, just running quotes, but it also doesn’t have enough non-quoted material to make it cohere, so it winds up consisting of six or seven consecutive paragraphs of quotes, followed by a line or two of exposition, then more extended quotes. I’d have preferred to see it edited and synthesized into a fuller narrative, maybe intercutting different speakers when their stories cover the same area. Which was my other problem, especially with the comedians section: too many of them tell the same stories, tending to revolve around the rule against dating Bunnies who worked at the club. That said, I’m more of a cartooning nerd than a comedy nerd, so I enjoyed the stories in that portion of the book, which included long-time artists like Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, and Jules Feiffer. Those cartoonists speak fondly of their experience with the magazine, and the great editing they received from Hugh Hefner (who never made it as a cartoonist but clearly knew the art form inside and out). So I applaud Ms. Farmer’s drive to capture these stories and explore the greater cultural significance of Hugh Hefner’s vision, but I wish it was a better organized and edited work. • Listen to our podcast
After Henry: Essays – Joan Didion – It’s weird to start my reading of Didion with this lesser-known collection, but there was a Kindle sale, and on a whim one morning I thought, “I really should start reading her.” This one came out in 1992 and parts of it focus on the ’88 election. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of past elections, and how apocalyptic each one seemed. I used to say that the worst part of the Bush/Cheney years was the terrible protest art that came out of it. Now I look at the way Bush vs. Dukakis was treated like the end of the world, and can only laugh, because they had no idea how bathings would get. Of course, that implies that we’ve hit rock bottom here, and that 20 years on, there won’t be people saying, “How naive those commentators were in 2017. . .” Anyway, her prose lived up to its reputation for being lean and incisive. I really got into the California/LA section, and need to read more of her earlier work in that area. I read her long closing piece on the Central Park Five with some trepidation, out of concern that the subsequent exoneration of the convicted/railroaded rapists would invalidate her thesis. (I mean, it’s not like she was taking out full-page ads in the New York Times calling for their execution, but I didn’t know going in if she was going to take their guilt as a given and springboard from there; she didn’t.) This may be a minor collection of hers, but it’s just fine as a starting point for me.
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion – This is a harrowing story about her daughter’s coma-inducing illness and her husband’s sudden death by heart attack, and how the author coped and didn’t in the following year. The writing isn’t as graceful as Didion’s essays, but the events are too immediate and too damaging. One simply can’t plumb those depths with the same tools one brings to bear on the greater world, so it’s a different book than her other work. It’s heart-rending without being sentimental, laying bare the losses she suffers in short order. I’ve read a bunch of books this about those losses that age implies (and reread Roth’s Everyman as a topper), and this one captures the particularities and universalities best, I think.
The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare – Reread it for the first time in a bazillion years after reading a Roger Greenblatt essay in The New Yorker about it and his experience as a Jew at Yale in the early ’60s. I don’t know what I thought about it the first time around, but I feel like Shylock’s justified in his rage and his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, after Antonio missed the deadline to pay back his loan. Between making the loan and its term date, Shylock lost his daughter and a chunk of his money and possessions to a young gentile swell. If she had run off without taking a ducat, it might be a tougher sell, but taking the money and jewels with her makes it easy for Shylock to think, “A gentile wooed my daughter so he could steal my money,” as opposed to, “My daughter so loved this man that she gave up her legacy to marry him.” Just because the daughter isn’t mentioned in the court scene doesn’t mean she isn’t weighing on him, and with her the Christian world’s persecution of him. So even though Antonio’s friends try to repay his debt after it’s come due, I can understand Shylock becoming more unreasonable than he was when he first signed the bond with Antonio. He lost his only child, a ring his wife gave him, and more besides. Taking the money — two, three, six times the original loan — would make him less of a man, not more. And the legal proceedings and trickery that end his case only serve to support the opinion that the Christian world is biased against him. When I told my wife about this — she hasn’t read the play — she said I’m reminded her of Chris Rock’s take on OJ: “I’m not saying he should’ve killed her, but I’m saying I understand.”
Survival In Auschwitz – Primo Levi – This was my first time with Levi, embarrassing to admit. I bought the slipcase edition of his complete work shortly after finishing this. Levi’s depiction of Auschwitz is, of course, soul-shattering: the brutal conditions, the arbitrariness of life and death, the matter-of-fact elimination of hope. It tore me to shreds, and yet in the middle of it all, there’s this beautiful chapter in which Levi is trying to recite portions of Dante to another prisoner. He’s trying to restore a higher meaning to the world, and share it with another, which makes it the most beautiful thing I read this year.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories – Nathan Englander – I never read Englander when he first made waves in the ’90s. His author photo looked too dramatic, and that was enough for me. I was a lot dumber then, or so I like to believe. A friend turned me on to him this fall, and I read all 4 of his books in short order: collection, novel, collection, novel. I think this is my fave of his, even though it’s at the beginning of his career. The stories were a hybrid of Bruce Jay Friedman and Philip Roth, but among religious Jews, which is territory that neither of those authors ever really handled well. Like Eddy Portnoy’s nonfiction work, Bad Rabbis (see below), I enjoyed reading out “alien” Jews who have much the same yearnings and foibles as the less observant, more assimilated set. Englander’s prose is unshowy and clear throughout, and I’m sorta kicking myself for not having read this ~20 years ago.
The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered – Benjamin Taylor – A beautiful, sad short memoir about the year around JFK’s assassination, as experienced by the author around the age of 11. Besides that event, he contends the period is an arbitrary choice, that any year could have stood in for the whole, and he’s probably correct: the family tensions, his homosexuality and life in the arts, Jewishness and the American experience. The book stretches beyond that year, and beyond Taylor’s own experience, uniting the boy he was with the man he’d become. I regret reading it so quickly (in one afternoon) and hope to revisit it more slowly in 2018.
The Ministry of Special Cases – Nathan Englander – A pretty audacious idea for Englander’s first novel, jumping from his short stories about orthodox Jews in the US and Israel to Argentina’s dirty was in the ’70s. It remains a tale of Jews and our déclassé roots; the lead character’s job is to sneak into the old Jewish cemetery and chisel away the names of criminals whose descendants are now part of respectable society. His son, a college-age semi-radical, is disappeared by the government and his wife goes mad trying to wrest his release from the bureaucrats. It’s got some beautiful, haunting scenes and dives into the issue of what it means to be a diaspora Jew. As I open it at random now, the first line to jump out is the lead character’s wife saying, “We are Jews, Kaddish. You can choose not to be one yourself, but you are to them. You are to the government and to the people who have our son.” I enjoyed it immensely.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories – Nathan Englander – I didn’t like this one as much as Englander’s first collection (see above). Too much artifice, too much narrative trickery and postmodern tropes. As a reader, I felt as though the author was trying to keep from repeating himself, but wound up being too smart for his own good. It’s understandable, because successful authors tend to be damned if they do/don’t: they’re either seen as one-trick ponies or they disappoint their audience by going in a radically different direction. In this case, the stories just felt too self-conscious.
The Peregrine – JA Baker – It took me several weeks to read this book, which is under 200 pages. Part of that was because of how busy I was with work, but I think even if I hadn’t been so busy, I wouldn’t have rushed through it. It’s one of the strangest, most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure how to explain its allure. It’s nonfiction nature writing about a fall-to-spring stretch in eastern England in the mid-’60s. The book chronicles the writer’s days of keeping an eye on a pair of peregrines, and that’s it. We learn nothing about his life or his motivation, although his misanthropy suffuses the book; he’s clearly happier in the world-without-men. The thing is, the book has some of the most amazing prose I’ve ever read. The author turns astonishing phrases, evoking inhuman majesty out of the tooth-and-claw lives of birds of prey. Throughout, he aspires not to make the peregrine his familiar, but to become the familiar of the peregrine, so that the bird recognizes him as one of its own. It’s just breathtaking, the way the quotidian aspects of watching birds build into this pagan shift in consciousness. It’ll stick with me for a long time.
Three Floors Up – Eshkol Nevo – This was a novel about three people who live in an apartment building near Tel Aviv, and the way their lives do and don’t intertwine. It’s skillfully written; each of the three characters narrate to a different listener/reader, one unspooling a monologue to a pal, another writing a long letter to a friend in the US, and the third leaving answering machine messages to her dead husband. The stories are quintessentially Israeli, but still relatable to someone who hasn’t been to Israel since his bar mitzvah (1984). It’s less about the beauty of the prose than the deft storytelling and the tension each of the three stories evokes. While I enjoyed it, some of that tension or drama felt contrived, and there were some segments where the narrators were deliberately teasing in a way that can be frustrating to a reader. Anyway, decent novel. • Listen to our podcast
Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough – It’s a spooky psychological thriller taking place in London. It’s about a psychiatrist and his deeply bent wife, and the secretary he has an affair with, but it’s so much creepier than that. Similarly, one of the narrators holds back key info or occasionally refers to something obliquely just to tease the reader, but the payoff is all worth it. Really entertaining page-turner of a book, with a requisite twist.
A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar – This one’s an alt-history noir SF about a world in which Hitler gets deposed in ’33 and goes into hiding as a gumshoe detective in London. It’s intercut with the story of an inmate at Auschwitz in the “real” world, a trash writer who may be constructing the alt-history story in his head as a way of escaping the horrors of the concentration camp. (Primo Levi has a cameo in the book.) The noir plot that Hitler/Wolf falls into is convoluted, but it gives the author a vehicle to visit all sorts of torments on Hitler: circumcision, anal rape, and a final twist of comic irony that I laughed over. It reminded me a bit of Timur Vermes’ novel, Look Who’s Back, in which Hitler wakes up in modern-day Berlin and has to figure out what happened since 1945, in the process becoming a comedy star. The key difference is that Vermes is a gentile and Tidhar is an Israeli Jew, and I’m still undecided on whether it’s okay to laugh at Hitler when it’s a Jew making the joke, but not when a gentile does (or at least, not someone from another of the demographics that were condemned to the camps). I know we’re either supposed to say, “Comedy should have no limits” or “Respect victims’ perspectives,” but of course I fall somewhere in between. Anyway, I enjoyed this one, but I also went to an opening-day matinee of Inglourious Basterds so I could get an early start on watching Nazis get scalped by Jewish soldiers.
Central Station – Lavie Tidhar – It doesn’t add up to a full novel, but that wasn’t the author’s intent. I didn’t realize going in that it’s a “mosaic novel”, collecting and threading together a series of stories about a shared environment. It takes place mainly at the base of a space station in Tel Aviv, which sorta reminded me of the unofficial Central Bus Depot during my last visit there (c.1984). It’s overloaded with SF concepts, but Tidhar handles them deftly, shifting among perspectives rooted in AI, VR/AR, cyborgs, etc. Know going in that it doesn’t deliver as a fully-formed novel, and you’ll enjoy the heck out of it.
Lastingness: The Art of Old Age – Nicholas Delbanco – This is a collection of essays about artists’ late work, or more precisely, the art late in their life and what happens to artists as they age. Delbanco focuses on music, visual arts and literature, and it’s not all “great late work from great artists”. He draws on examples of artists whose work grew weaker or more primitive alongside, say, Yeats, who continued to achieve major work in his later life. The book is a kaleidoscope of artists and artworks, and reading it left me looking forward to meeting the cultured guy who has command of so many lives. At no point did it leave me thinking, “I can put off art-making until my later days and Show Them All!”, since the common thread for his subjects is their constant level of work over the course of their lives. I was glad that he managed to sneak Giuseppe di Lampedusa into the book, even though he really only had one book, published posthumously. • Listen to our podcast
Curiouser and Curiouser: Essays – Nicholas Delbanco – This collects several of Delbanco’s essays from the 21st century. It starts off with a wonderful piece about restoring his father-in-law’s Stradivarius cello, and also features pieces on museum-going, his process of revising an early trilogy of novels, and a 15-year update of his autobiographical sketch. They’re all wonderful pieces. The center of the book is an essay I don’t want to give away anything about, although you might figure out what it is based on the book’s title and the color of the cover. He’s a graceful, thoughtful writer, and the workmanship of every sentence is apparent. I don’t mean they’re overworked, but that their flow is considered and worked out, with nothing loose or extraneous. As opposed to, you know, every thing I write. I started this before the previous Delbanco book, so it served as my intro to his work. I’m hoping to spend more time with his fiction in the next few years, podcast-reading-schedule willing. • Listen to our podcast
The Years – Nicholas Delbanco – It’s a recent novel about a man and woman who were college sweethearts, fell apart after the man’s graduation, and bump into each other more than 40 years later, rekindling their relationship. The story alternates between their present together and their mutual-then-divided lives. It’s premised on the idea that one’s first love is one’s last, which I don’t exactly agree with (my wife & I met in our mid-30s), but it’s a beautiful novel about the what time does to us and how we sometimes struggle to find continuity. It bore echoes of Philip Roth’s Everyman — which I re-read every year or two because I like to be reminded that I will be an old Jew who dies (if lucky) — in terms of people looking back at their lives and trying to understand and correct their mistakes in the time they have left. • Listen to our podcast
The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts – Nicholas Delbanco – This is a series of biographical sketches about three artists (a writer, a painter, and a composer) who died before they were 40, and how we try to assess artistic achievement when the artist’s arc gets cut off. I don’t like Delbanco’s writing style in this one, nor in the sorta companion book, Lastingness (see above), because it’s more reliant on sketches and less on developing his own arguments about artistic development. Still, it was a rewarding read, especially for someone who didn’t even get back to writing until after he was 40 (I’ll send you one of my post-40 short stories if you ask, but I’m not exactly going to quit my day job). • Listen to our podcast
The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox – Vanda Krefft – I devoured this one in about a week. It’s 950 pages long (the last 200 pages notes), so that’s no mean feat. It’s a fantastic book about one of the men who launched the movie industry in America (and the world). Even though the name of his studio is one of the leading global media brands, his own story left him almost forgotten to history. Ms. Krefft does a fantastic job of telling Fox’s story, from his hardscrabble childhood to his days as a proto-tycoon of movies to his collapse following a battle with Wall Street and AT&T after the financial crash of 1929. She manages to balance the stories of movie-making, technology wars, financial engineering, and personal conflicts as she assembles the life of a largely forgotten but pivotal figure in 20th century America. I started out thinking I’d read 30-35 pages a day, but averaged 100+, because it’s so compulsively readable. If you’re interested in how the movie industry began and how it wove together entertainers, real estate magnates, crooked judges and the phone company, give this one a read. • Listen to our podcast
Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press – Eddy Portnoy – Eddy Portnoy collects stories from the Yiddish papers of Poland and New York from the 1880s to the 1930s or so, delving into the seedy, wacky underworld of Jewish culture. It’s uproariously entertaining, with crazy stories about bigamist rabbis, 600-lb. Jewish wrestlers, Hatfield-and-McCoy-like rivalries between religious sects, Jewish beauty pageants, and all sorts of crime, seediness and misbegotten behavior that my people tend not to get associated with nowadays. It’s a delight to read, filled with pictures from the Yiddish papers, including cartoons that commented on the stories. It’s fun to see what tabloid culture was like in those places and eras, and it’s good to remember that, no matter how much we’re considered The People of the Book, sometimes life goes off the rails. • Listen to our podcast
Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe – Cullen Murphy – The author’s dad was John Cullen Murphy, the artist who succeeded Hal Foster on the Prince Valiant comic strip, and the book is about his father’s life and the incredible community of cartoonists, illustrators, and other artists who lived in the southeast corner of Connecticut in the 1950s and 60s. Cullen writes affectionately about his father’s career as an artist, from his training to his time in the military, to his stint drawing Big Ben Bolt, a strip I will admit I’d never heard of before I read this book. At the same time, the book is about a specific time and place, where syndicated comic strips could support an artist’s and his family, and leave time for lots of rounds of golf. The book renders those days and the camaraderie among the so-called Connecticut School in a way that sorta mirrors Prince Valiant’s ascension to the knights of the round table. It’s also filled with a mind-blowing selection of cartoons, paintings, letters, and other visual material. It’s an absolutely gorgeous production and a lovely tribute to a lost time and place. • Listen to our podcast
Dinner at the Center of the Earth: A novel – Nathan Englander – This new novel is about an Israeli spy in a secret prison. He felt remorse over the results of his first operation, and spilled the beans to a Palestinian. The book shifts in time and perspective, exploring his life on the run, the guard who’s been overseeing him for a dozen years, the general who imprisoned him (Ariel Sharon, although he’s never named explicitly) who’s been in a coma for a decade, the general’s aide who keeps lonely watch over him, and a female spy who interacted with the prisoner after that first botched operation. It’s generally deftly handled, albeit not a Le Carre-level thriller. Englander explores some tough questions of what Israel does to survive (and he lived there for years, so he’s not just an American Jew declaiming Israel from afar), and what the prospects of peace are. The structure’s a little unbalanced, with a romance cropping up in the last quarter that should have been spaced throughout but can’t, due to storytelling dynamics. Still, it’s an engaging, quick novel that will leave you considering its ramifications after you finish the last page.
Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America – Cullen Murphy – The thesis is right there in the title: is America mirroring the decline of ancient Rome? Murphy, a former managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and current editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, studied medieval history in college, and brings a wealth of knowledge to the topic. He draws parallels and dissimilarities between the two empires, and speculates on how the US can avoid some recurring traps. Like just about every work of its kind, the proscriptive portion is a mess. That’s not a knock on him: even Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities falls to pieces when she tries to offer a new model for urban life. Also, the book at times focuses too much on details about Rome, without drawing them back into contemporary issues, getting lost in minutiae like a college professor losing the thread of a lecture. Like I said about that Didion collection above, it’s weird to read this sort of thing and transport myself back to when it was written: 2008. That is, Murphy’s framework is 8 years of the Bush/Cheney administration, which people are nowadays concluding maybe wasn’t that bad. . . . • Listen to our podcast
How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels – Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden – Almost 30 years ago, these cartoonists wrote an essay using a single daily Nancy strip (August 8, 1959) to elucidate many of the principles that go into making and reading comics. They’ve expanded that into a gorgeous full-length book, supplemented with biographical info on Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller and a vivid selection of other Nancy strips that help demonstrate their points on comics. The bulk of the book is 44 two-page spreads that analyze different aspects of that single three-panel strip. They show the reader how carefully crafted a joke can be, performing close reading on something that only contains three words, spoken three times: “Draw, you varmint”. The joke of the strip manages not to die despite dissection, and their exploration of Bushmiller’s work illuminates how comics work. Since reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics back in 1993, I’ve understood that what differentiates comics from other narrative and graphic forms is what happens between the panels. Karasik and Newgarden explode that gap and show how every single element of a comic can work in unison on what seems like a momentary, throwaway gag. The book is beautifully designed and a joy to read. (Note: I was never a particular fan of Nancy.)
Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old – John Leland – This is adapted from/inspired by a series Leland wrote at The New York Times, where he profiled people aged 85+. He explores the outlook of people who’ve outlived most of their cohort, and what passes for wisdom in our present age. It’s not just a series of anecdotes; Leland also brings in research about aging and speaks to several gerontologists about the physical, mental and emotional changes people tend to go through as they reach that “oldest old” category. The real kicker is that Leland brings his own experience to the table — in his 50s, newly divorced, struggling with a lack of meaning in his life — and explores the lessons he learns about living during the process of writing these profiles.
Exit Ghost – Philip Roth (re) – As mentioned earlier, I usually re-read Philip Roth’s Everyman near the end of every year, but when I went to pick it up on Dec. 27, I decided to pick up the book beside it on my shelf: Exit Ghost, Roth’s last Nathan Zuckerman novel. I’d read that novel in 2008 under trying conditions: on an early Kindle, mostly during a 7-hour flight delay in Belfast “International” Airport, and hated it. This time I reading it in print, and blazed through half of it that night and the rest in the morning. I’m glad I gave it another chance. I’ll admit that Zuckerman’s immediate, massive infatuation with the female author was off-putting in our post-Weinstein era, but I know that’s part of the point of NZ’s character, especially at that point in his life, where prostate cancer has left him impotent and incontinent, and where his memory is starting to go. The setting — New York City in the days before and after George W. Bush’s re-election — is accidentally resonant, in the way that Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? seems to come from a more innocent time. All the vitriol from the 30-year-old characters about Bush & Cheney somehow seems quaint in this era. But this is really more about the end of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s main stand-in, and the perils of equating an author’s fiction with his life. That said, Zuckerman is so dead-set against the project of a biography of his literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, that I’m curious as to how Blake Bailey approached Roth about writing his bio. The prose flows easily, including the segments written as stage dialogue where Zuckerman imagines conversations with the busty female author. I’d also completely forgotten the segment about George Plimpton, which dovetails a bit with a project I’d love to write. Exit Ghost came out after Everyman, the book that began Roth’s final books, the Nemesis quartet, but I feel like it’s of a piece with that cycle, both in terms of subject and form.
Everyman – Philip Roth (re) – My annual year-end read. I’ve been reading a lot of books about age and mortality this year, so this caps it off. It didn’t affect me as much this time, but I’d just read Exit Ghost like 5 minutes earlier. I found myself paying more attention this time to the structure, or the integumentary material, the stitching that brings together the life of the unnamed lead character. It’s the first time I’ve read it in print, rather than Kindle, for a while, and that was also a different experience. I’m still hoping to record with Roth someday, and all this talk about death and Jews makes me think I need to get on that sooner rather than later.
“After Katrina, I looked around and saw we had reporters out covering the destruction, but ain’t nobody looking around and what’s left. So that’s what I started to do to. I drove my car around the city until I ran out of gas. I got on my bike and rode around until I got a flat tire. And then I started walking. And I wrote about what was here, rather than what was gone.”
Chris Rose wrote the definitive book of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 1 Dead in Attic. I caught up with him for his Magical Musical Mystery History walking tour of the French Quarter, and after we sat down in Harry’s Corner bar and talked about his life, his art, his three literary feuds, how he went from winning a Pulitzer Prize to waiting tables, going from celebrity-stalker to the Bard of the Crescent City, the myths and truths of the French Quarter, and a whole lot more. Give it a listen! And buy 1 Dead in Attic and book a walking tour of the French Quarter!
“My tour is like standup comedy, but we keep moving the stage. Drop all the pretension, and just start telling the stories like you do on stage.”
If you can make it through my self-pitying ramble of an intro (just skip to like 6:45), and you’ll hear a great talk about being New Orleans famous and/or infamous, the catharsis of the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, the other walking tours he’d love to run, his literary and journalistic heroes, how he got blackballed by his college newspaper, the time he got a cease-and-desist letter from Richard Ford, and why he’s never leaving the city again. Now go listen to the show!
“I was an ordinary man living in an extraordinary time. . . . All I did was write every day about what it was like trying to live in an unlivable city.”
About our Guest
Chris Rose used to be a columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. He won a Pulitzer for his contributions to the Times-Picayune‘s Public Service. He was a finalist for the 2006 Michael Kelly Award. His book, 1 Dead in Attic, was a New York Times bestseller. In recent years, he worked as a waiter. Now he’s a licensed tour guide. He lives in New Orleans with his 3 children. Chris Rose reigned as King of the Krewe du Vieux for the 2007 New Orleans Mardi Gras season.
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 Harry’s Corner bar on Chartres St. 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. Photos of Mr. Rose by Amy Roth.
“These days, we tend to think of identity as something chosen; we put on certain masks or we identify as this or that, culturally, ethnically or politically. Bellow is interested in something much more basic: who we really are.”
David Mikics joins the show to talk about his wonderful new book, Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art (Norton). We get into Bellow’s legacy, his fall from academic favor, his transmutations of life into art, David’s humorously accidental introduction to his work, what Jewishness meant to Bellow, whether Philip Roth was right when he told Bruce Jay Friedman, “Saul Bellow am de daddy of us all,” and more! Give it a listen! And go read Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art.
“Bellow once said that the reason writers had such messy personal lives is because they didn’t know what to do with the afternoon.”
We also talk about David’s experience as a professor, why writing is harder for today’s students, what it’s like to teach course called, “Is Life Worth Living?” and “The Human Situation”, which science fiction novels warped him as a youth, why we need Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, what contemporary books look like they’ll last, and why he eventually came around on Faulkner. Go listen!
“Canonicity is not where you find it, but where you make it.”
- Rachel Hadas (2014 and 2016)
- Bruce Jay Friedman
- Jules Feiffer
- Harold Bloom
- Langdon Hammer
- Edward Mendelson
- Willard Spiegelman
About our Guest
David Mikics grew up in Carteret, New Jersey and Atlanta. He went to college at NYU and earned a Ph.D. at Yale. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Victoria and son Ariel, and teaches every year at the University of Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English. He is the author of six books, including Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Belknap/Harvard) and Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art (Norton), and is a columnist at Tablet magazine.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at David’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. Intro was recorded on the same setup. Photo of Mr. Mikics by me.
“One thing I tell young cartoonists: a magazine is like going out on a date, and a book is like getting married. If you’re going out on a date, you don’t need a lawyer. If you’re doing a book, you get a lawyer.”
Sam Gross’ gag panels warped me at a young age (see above), so it was an honor to get him on mic to talk about his nearly six-decade cartooning career. We sat down in his studio to discuss the serious business of gags, how he went from drawing a Saul Steinberg nose to drawing a Sam Gross one, how he continues in his 80s to come up with a week’s worth of new gags for Look Day, how he once got a Vanishing New York tour from Charles Addams, how he revels in the “humor of the handicapped”, and the magazine he misses the most. Give it a listen!
“I don’t know where I’m gonna go next. I’m not a finished product.”
About our Guest
Sam Gross has been publishing cartoons since the 1950s. His cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker since 1969. He served as the cartoon editor of National Lampoon and Parents magazines, and was president of the Cartoonists Guild. He has published numerous collections, including I Am Blind and My Dog is Dead. You can buy reproductions of his art at the Conde Nast Store.
Credits: This episode’s music is Funny Little Frog by Belle & Sebastian. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Gross’ studio on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Gross 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
On Friday evening, Amy was over at a neighbor’s, so I spent some time downstairs in the library, looking at my books and pulling ones that I hope to read in the year ahead. I’m going to list them here so I can check back in December and see how far I deviated from plan. Also, so I can look like a smartypants:
- The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway (re-read)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls – Hemingway
- Tender is the Night – Fitzgerald (re-read)
- Money – Martin Amis
- Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer
- Chronicles, vol. 1 – Bob Dylan (re-read)
- The Learners – Chip Kidd
- The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fitzgerald)
- The Metamorphoses – Ovid (tr. Mandelbaum)
- The Dictionary of the Khazars – Milorad Pavic
- Life – Keith Richards
- Cultural Amnesia – Clive James (I’ve been winding my way through this for quite some time, and hope to finish it this year)
- Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
- Stories – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
That’s only 14 books, so I’ve left myself plenty of wiggle room. I don’t think I’ll start a major reading project this year, like tackling Caro’s biography of LBJ or re-reading Proust. I’ve been thinking about re-reading Middlemarch, or taking up David Mitchell’s newest one, and there are a bazillion other books downstairs to discover or return to, but this seems like a good starting point. I’ll let you know how it goes (like it or not).