“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.
“I often think that my ideas are exaggerations that are on the brink of disbelief, but just this side of that, so the suspension of disbelief is a challenge in my books. I like to push things as far as they can go.”
Rupert Thomson returns to the show to talk about his new novel, Katherine Carlyle (Other Press, 2015). We also discuss IVF babies, doing research “in character”, keeping the reader’s interest in a “road movie” novel, prioritizing imaginary facts above real facts, his pros & cons list for becoming a parent, the challenge of writing a novel about a father’s fear for his child’s safety, the long and short answer of “Where do you get your ideas?”, how he got James Salter to blurb his new book, and more! Give it a listen!
“My wife was adopted. She told me what it was like not to be related to anyone in the world by blood. She said, ‘We learn about ourselves by looking at people we resemble, and if you don’t have that, you’re alone in the world. And the only mirror is the one on the wall.’ I felt like it was within my gift to change that for her.”
Rupert also talks about repetition compulsion, the changing nature of a full-time writer, learning to perform in public readings, why he wanted to name his new book Frankenstein’s Daughter and why his wife told him not to write it for years, who he’s reading, and what his daughter thinks about his work. Go listen!
“People would assume that you’d do all the research and then write the book, but with me it’s absolutely the opposite way ’round: I think the real facts can really get in the way of the imagined ones. I sink down into my imagination and write the book I want to write first. The imagined facts have to have priority over the real ones.”
We talked about some books during this conversation. You should go read ’em!
- Katherine Carlyle – Rupert Thomson
- Secrecy – Rupert Thomson
- Unformed Landscape – Peter Stamm
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
- Love Me Back – Merritt Tierce
- All That Is – James Salter
- Light Years – James Salter
- The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories – Joy Williams
- The Mare – Mary Gaitskill
About our Guest
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels, including Secrecy; The Insult, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and selected by David Bowie as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time; The Book of Revelation, which was made into a feature film by Ana Kokkinos; and Death of a Murderer, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year Award. His memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, was named Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year. He lives in London.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Carlyle Hotel on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“I enjoy going back to Lorain, Ohio because I’m reminded that the world of Washington and the East Coast literary establishment is a very narrow, special one that’s parochial in its own way. The rest of the world has other concerns: family, job and life in general. Whereas we get all up in arms about very minor things.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer Michael Dirda rejoins the show to talk about his new collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (Pegasus Books). We discuss the importance of reading for pleasure, the difference between book-collecting and shopping, the role of the book reviewer (and how it differs from that of the critic), a recent negative review he didn’t want to write, why he doesn’t read reviews of his work, what his mother said when he won the Pulitzer Prize, and more! Give it a listen!
“The books that you don’t grasp immediately, the ones that leave you off-kilter . . . those are often the books that really last, and matter.”
Our first three-time guest also talks about the democratization of book reviewing, the problems of storing books in his basement, what he wants an author to think upon reading his book review of a book, his affinity for Clive James’ work, whether his reviews have a coded autobiographical element to them, how the limitations of the book review form shaped his style, why he disagrees with John Clute’s philosophy on spoilers, and more!
We talk about a lot of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Little Big Man – Thomas Berger
- Suspects – Thomas Berger
- The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination – Daniel Boorstin
- The Discoverers – Daniel Boorstin
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus – Cyril Connolly
- The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda
- On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling – Michael Dirda
- The Robe – Lloyd C. Douglas
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded – Clifton Fadiman
- Party of One – Clifton Fadiman
- Enter Conversing – Clifton Fadiman
- The Recognitions – William Gaddis
- Muse: A novel – Jonathan Galassi
- The Green Carnation – Robert Hichens
- The Odyssey – Homer
- Appleby’s End – Michael Innes
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Kim – Rudyard Kipling
- Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis
- Dazzle – Judith Krantz
- V R Lang: Poems & Plays with a Memoir – Alison Lurie
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay
- Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney
- The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
- Burning the Days: Recollection – James Salter
- Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
- Anathem – Neal Stephenson
- Walden – Thoreau
- Stoner – John Williams
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
About our Guest
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book: Chapters fom a Reader’s Life, and of four previous collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Bound to Please, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, and Classics for Pleasure, in addition to his newest collection, Browsings. His previous book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Michael Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Spectator, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
Credits: This episode’s music is Ah, Putrefaction by Jaristo, from Hans Zimmer’s film music for Sherlock Holmes. The conversation was recorded at the Boston Marriott Burlington on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.
At the end of last year’s writeup, I mentioned that I was 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale. I bailed on it; just wasn’t feeling it, which may have been due to reading it on my Kindle vs. print. I also mentioned that I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, James Salter’s Light Years, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. How’d I fare? I didn’t get to Sebald or The Radetzky March, I gave up on Light Years after 100 pages, did read Bleeding Edge, Stern and the whole Divine Comedy, and never got back to Kahneman’s book.
Click on the pic above to embiggen
Reading for my Virtual Memories Show podcast dominated my book selection this year. Around two-thirds of the books I read were by guests or were for background for our interviews. I’m not complaining; a lot of them were really good, and I may never have gotten around to them without the impetus of the show! There were some periods where I was chasing, or just trying to stay afloat with reading. That said, when I finally got ahead of the guest list in April, I took it upon myself to read Dante, which of course turned out to be fantastic.
Anyway, I read more than 50 books this year, but not all of it was Dante-sized. I still haven’t made an appreciable dent in my library, which keeps creeping up as new pod-guest-books come in, along with my own purchases and gifts from pals. I’ve asked our handyman to build me a couple of book carts, so I can pretend that there’s enough shelf space downstairs for everything.
The list below only includes prose work. I feel like including comics would be cheating, but I do have to say that one of the best books I read last year was Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about her parents’ deaths in their mid-90s. If you’re using this as a shopping list, definitely put that one at the top. If you read smart comics, you should also check out Here, by Richard McGuire, a full-length version of the groundbreaking six-page comic he made in 1989. You’ll never look at a corner of your living room the same again. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s Chris Ware’s take on Here.) And give Over Easy, by Mimi Pond, a read. (I did a podcast with Roz Chast, and pair with Mimi Pond. Here’s the one with Roz, and part 1 and part 2 with Mimi.)
Unlike past years, I’m not going to take this space to ruminate on midlife, mortality, the pleasure of books, etc. Well, it’s all about the pleasure of books, I suppose. Enjoy, and good reading in 2015!
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Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry – Rachel Hadas – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Willard Spiegelman. It’s a memoir about the period in which Rachel’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a beautiful book that details both her husband’s decline and the poetry that helped sustain Rachel through that gradual, terrible loss. I’m a poetry imbecile; that is, I don’t spend enough time with poetry, because of my preference for novels, but I was pretty immersed in this one. Listen to our podcast!
Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora – Emily Raboteau – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Peter Trachtenberg. It’s the author’s exploration of race as she travels the world. She’s a very light-skinned black woman, at least by American standards. In Jamaica, she’s considered white, and in Africa, she’s something else completely. It’s a compelling book about identity and blackness in America. Listen to our podcast!
Comics Art – Paul Gravett – Read it for the podcast, in time for a business trip to England, where I connected with the author. It’s a good overview of the comics form, without the America-centricity that can crop up in that sort of survey. The book was commissioned as part of the Art series for the Tate, and it does have a sort of museum aspect to it, but I mean that in a good way. Paul is so so knowledgeable about comics, and it was a pleasure to read the book and then talk with him for something like four hours over an afternoon. Listen to our podcast!
Black Cracker – Josh Alan Friedman – Read it for the podcast, as part of my “Capturing The Other Friedmans” series of interviews. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Josh’s childhood, where he wound up as the only white student in an all-black school in the ’60s. It’s hysterically funny, but I was a little nervous about people noticing the cover while I was reading it on a British Railways ride. The book was particularly interesting because I read it after reading Josh Alan’s youngest brother’s book about their childhood (Barracuda in the Attic), their dad’s memoir (Lucky Bruce, which I reread soon after this), and hearing middle brother Drew’s stories about childhood. It’s not like a Rashomon situation, but each rendition creates a fuller picture of the tensions and dynamics of these kids and their parents. I’d love to get all the family together for a group interview, but I’m afraid it could lead to bloodshed, possibly mine. Listen to our podcast!
About Harry Towns
The Current Climate
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (r)
A Mother’s Kisses – Bruce Jay Friedman – Read it all for the podcast, but also because I made the discovery of Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction in 2013. (As you may or may not recall, I wrote, “I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. . . . I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe.”) Stern and A Mother’s Kisses supported the claim Bruce’s son made to me, that their dad was Philip Roth before Philip Roth. The two books of Harry Town stories, About Harry Town and The Current Climate, helped me think more about my Abe Loesser stories. Several of the chapters in them mirror episodes from BJF’s memoir, Lucky Bruce, which I re-read once we were definitely on to record a show. I was interested in how Bruce rewrote the stories of his life for fiction and for memoir. We didn’t go into that topic extensively during our conversation, but it did give me a sort of license to play more with my experiences and bend them out of strict re-telling and into art. Listen to our podcast!
The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) – Technically not for the podcast, although it did serve as background when I interviewed George Prochnik a little while later. This was the new translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, which he sent out to his publisher shortly before his suicide in 1942. It paints a magical picture of pre-WWI Vienna, and a harrowing picture of Austria after that war. Some of the most evocative material is about Zweig’s own development, and what it was like to live in a time when one could travel the world without a passport. The New York city segment is a joy. It’s a remarkable book. I don’t know if there’s a “key” to understanding Zweig’s suicide, but contrasting the world of yesterday with the future that was unfolding — even with an Allied win over the Axis — it was clear that Zweig didn’t want to live through another reconstruction or face a bureaucratized future. Listen to my Zweig podcast with George Prochnik.
Visible City – Tova Mirvis – Read it for the podcast. This was pitched by the publisher, and I had some reticence about it; from the description they gave, it sounds like Mommy Lit, which is not my thing. It had more going on than that, lucky for me, in terms of urban exploration and struggling with Judaism. I was bummed to find that the closing line of my short story about the High Holidays was mirrored in her book, as a minor line describing a character, but I refused to give it up. Listen to our podcast, even though I didn’t do a good job on this one, for a variety of reasons.
The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 – DG Myers – Read it for the podcast. The first non-fiction / non-memoir of this year’s reading. The late Prof. Myers (he died in September 2014) writes a wonderfully readable history of creative writing programs, from their inception to the mutant self-replicating form they’ve evolved into. It’s an illuminating piece of scholarship about a system that seems broken at first glance (that is, treating creative writing as an accredited program leads to teaching it for the sake of making more formulaic writers and/or more creative writing teachers); with an understanding of its history, we see far better how it ended up like this. Note: I’ve never taken a creative writing class. Listen to our podcast!
Hyde – Daniel Levine – Read it for the podcast. It’s not exactly a revisionist take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, not like that book about Ahab’s wife. Rather, it tells the classic story from Hyde’s perspective. I was suspicious about the premise (it was another book pitched by the publisher), but it’s really well written and Levine does a great job of making sure his story fits into the mechanics of the source story. Giving voice to Hyde — and not going with the easy out of making him the unrestrained id of the Victorian era — Levine manages to create a tense horror story that we thought we knew. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald – I picked this up on the suggestion of DG Myers. I’d never read Fitzgerald, and zoomed through this one over the course of an afternoon. It’s gorgeous and understated, and apparently that’s a hallmark of her work. I picked up the two Modern Library collections of her work recently, and plan on reading more of her work. I’m awfully sad that I won’t get new recommendations from Prof. Myers, but he left a wealth of writing about literature on his blog over the years.
The Cold Song – Linn Ullmann – Read it for the podcast. It’s a lot of books: a murder mystery, a fairy tale, a family drama. I was swept up by the fragility of the characters, the compulsion to lie, the unendingness of a family’s grief, the ways in which loved ones fail to communicate. It’s set in Norway, but it almost feels like another world. It’s such a strange and compelling book, while seeming “normal” on its face, that I can’t really come up with the right words to describe it, beyond “You should read this.” Listen to our podcast: part 1 and part 2!
Mortality – Christopher Hitchens – Another suggestion of DG Myers, who was working on a book about his cancer experience. In our conversation, he lamented that Hitchens died so soon after his cancer diagnosis, because he hoped to see more writing from Hitchens about the process of dying. Ironically, Myers himself died far sooner than he expected. He thought he had another one or two years of life when we spoke in March, but he died six months later. And now those of us who knew him can lament that he too died before he could tell us more about Life on Planet Cancer (the title he settled on for his book). Hitchens’ essays come from the incredibly specific experience of his cancer, but his graceful writing brings it to life.
Not pictured: This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses – Lynne Sharon Schwartz – Read it for the podcast. We met at Bennington in 2013 when I drove up to interview David Gates; they’re both part of the Low Residency MFA faculty. These essays remind me very much of Phillip Lopate’s work, and it makes me wonder if that’s coincidental or if there’s a sort of generational approach to the personal essay that they both characterize. Probably the former. The centerpiece of the book is an essay about her heart surgery, and it’s digressive and detailed and a wonder to read. Listen to our podcast!
All That Is – James Salter – Likely the final book by a great American author I didn’t get around to until 2013. That year, I read A Sport and a Pastime and Solo Faces, and felt stupid that I’d missed out on a hybrid of Hemingway and Henry Miller all these years. His new book extends to cover the shape of a man’s life, with its myriad mistakes and friendships and failed loves and admission of age. For some reason, I felt echoes with Philip Roth’s Everyman, although Salter’s language is more beautiful than Roth’s.
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 2: Purgatorio
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 3: Paradiso – Dante (tr. Durling) – As I mentioned in the intro, I got ahead of the podcast-reading list around April, so I took the opportunity to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I picked this translation on the recommendation of one of my tutors at St. John’s College. It’s a prose translation with line breaks that mirror the poem; he and another tutor I consulted with contended that it’s better to go with a prose translation than a rhyming one, because Dante’s Italian is almost impossible not to rhyme, and it forces a false rhythm on the text. Anyway, it deserves all the accolades, and I weirdly found Purgatorio to be more enjoyable than the Inferno. I think it’s because the souls in Purgatory, even while they suffer awful torments, have hope that they’ll complete their purgation and ascend to Paradise, while the souls in Hell have abandoned all hope. Paradiso, I have to say, was the least enjoyable of the three poems, probably due to being the least concrete. Its abstractness and focus on the church’s founders/pioneers didn’t resonate with me the way the suffering and the stories of the lost did.
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World – George Prochnik – Read it for the podcast. One of the best books I read this year. It’s a biography covering Stefan Zweig’s final years, leading up to his suicide in 1942, but it’s also about Prochnik’s father’s flight from Austria. I found it to be a beautiful work, meditating on the meanings of exile, Zweig’s inability to cope with refugee life in New York despite his privileged position, and the culture that was lost with the rise of Nazism. Prochnik travels to many of Zweig’s waypoints during his last years — England, Manhattan, Westchester, Petropolis — but the book’s most haunting moments come in Austria. It’s a fantastic book (and one I would’ve read regardless of the podcast possibilities). Listen to our podcast!
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson – Read it for the podcast. An enjoyable novel set in 17th century Florence. It’s got sex, murder, religious hypocrisy (hence the need for secrecy), art and aesthetics, plague tableaux, and a true-life lead character in wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo. I’d never read Thomson before, and apparently his hallmark is jumping from genre to genre and style to style. I’m thinking I need to check out more of his work, but as you can see from the rest of the list, I was a little busy this year. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (re) – I reread this one on a whim, just to recapture that feeling of loneliness, of the mystery of experience and the failings of communication. I lead an exciting life.
Nose Down, Eyes Up – Merrill Markoe – Read it for the podcast. It’s a fun novel about a 40-something layabout in LA (named Gil) who realizes one day that he can understand what dogs are saying and communicate with them. Merrill does a great job portraying the world as perceived by dogs, in terms of how they’d logically understand the behavior of humans. They can’t for the life of ’em figure out why we keep picking up their crap and putting it in bags. Listen to our podcast!
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon – Like many of his readers, I’d wondered if Pynchon would write about “modern times,” as in post-9/11. The closest he came to his own era was Vineland, published in 1990 and taking place in 1984. This one treats of the months before and after 9/11, and it’s as weird, elliptical, funny, not-quite-sensical as I’ve come to expect from his novels. There were segments where this one seemed to overlap with William Gibson’s post-9/11 novels, and I think that’s partly because of WG’s status as a Pynchon novitiate, but also because the general response to these times by any novelist with a Big Perspective is to get caught up in the wheels within wheels of conspiracy, malignity and neglect by Forces Larger Than Us. I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and it made for an interesting segue from Inherent Vice, which takes place in the late ’60s and sorta has to shoe-horn the internet (and its ramifications) into a world that really had No Idea What Was Coming.
At Last – Edward St. Aubyn – This series, the Patrick Melrose novels, was recommended to me by Peter Trachtenberg at the end of 2013. Then there was a big New Yorker profile on the author and the ways in which his abusive childhood is mirrored in Melrose’s stories. I devoured the novels in pretty short order. They’re almost a sort of A Dance to the Music of Time, but with a smaller cast of characters and history, and with child-rape at the heart of the whole shebang. I enjoyed the first novel the most, mainly because of the utter vividness of Melrose’s monstrous rapist of a father. The second novel, in which Melrose goes on a drug bender while in New York to claim his father’s ashes, is a close runner-up. A lot of “writing as therapy” can make for bad art, but St. Aubyn does a wonderful job of turning the horrific circumstances of his childhood into a compelling series of novels. They’re necessarily brief; I think too much time in any of these tales would grow tiresome, even if there are characters with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m sure there are plenty of nuances of British culture and class that I missed, but the acid portraits are still pretty amazing.
The Incentive of the Maggot: Poems
The Great Wave: Poems – Ron Slate – Read them for the podcast. Every year, I tell myself that I need to read more poetry, so I was happy to book a podcast with Ron and let myself slow down to read these two collections of his work. I enjoyed the first one more, and he concurred that it’s a better collection, mainly because the lines are given more room to breathe. Many of the poems are grounded in a sort of working life to which I was able to relate: not the labor of the service biz or the factory, but one of Business, where the seeming romance of travel can wear thin and one looks for minor bits of magic to keep from growing numb. Listen to our podcast!
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes – This was recommended to me by Phillip Lopate as one of the best books he’d read in 2013. It’s a novel about a New York writer in Hollywood who falls into a relationship with a suicidal gal. (As in, he first sees her when she’s trying to kill herself by walking into the Pacific.) It’s in a sorta laconic style, where the events, even as they grow more dramatic, aren’t treated with great intensity, even though the narrator is struggling to cope with the relationship. It made me think I need to go re-read Nathanael West next year.
The Horned Man – James Lasdun – Read it for the podcast (we haven’t recorded yet). The novel’s a psychodrama about a college literature professor who may or may not be framed for several murders. There’s a harassment aspect to the professor’s history that gets really weird because, a bunch of years later, the author was accused by a student of harassment and stealing her novel. He wrote a memoir about it called Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, which I’ll be reading before we get together to record. This novel’s enjoyable in its strangeness; once the unreliability of the narrator is established, it’s a little difficult not to fall into a guessing game of “what really happened,” but Lasdun takes the story away from that easy out and proceeds into a surreal conclusion. Podcast coming in 2015!
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor – Jonathan Rose – Read it for the podcast. This is a literary biography of Winston Churchill, and Prof. Rose does a marvelous job of connecting the books and plays WC read and enjoyed with his major life points and policy decisions. I didn’t know all that much about WC’s early career, and this book helps illuminate that period of his life along with the aforementioned literary influences (of course, it’s up to debate as to how influential those literary influences were on WC’s decisions, but Rose makes plausible scenarios for many of them). I was glad to learn that Churchill was among the first science fiction politicians. Listen to our podcast!
Doll Palace – Sara Lippmann – Read it for the podcast. I think we connected because she found the podcast I did with David Gates. This collection of fiction is Sara’s first book, and it’s got some intense and powerful short stories in it. The author told me her work’s been described as “Jewish gothic,” and I think that’s appropriate. There’s a degree of Flannery O’Connor to her stories, even though the setting (and the religion) are quite different. She writes good sentences, creates compelling characters, and puts the reader in some uncomfortable frames of mind. Listen to our podcast!
Last Night – James Salter – I was waiting down at the local library for my wife’s bus from NYC (the bus stop is in the library parking lot), and took this slim collection of stories off the shelf. I devoured one story during the wait, checked the book out and read the rest of it over the next 24 hours. I’m still embarrassed not to have discovered Salter until 2013. The title story, about an assisted suicide, has a Poe-like twist/change of tone, but it’s not all about storytelling trickery.
Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov – Read it for the podcast. Really fun collection of essays about the author’s career as a cab-driver. He published a previous book on the subject, but that one focused on the work-week, and this one covers Dmitry’s time from his first shift to his last, from Boston to Chicago. He’s also a painter, and the book includes a number of his drawings made while sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab. (Not while driving.) Listen to our podcast!
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer – A few guests and pals told me I need to read her work, and recommended this one. I was pretty disappointed in it; the big twist was pretty obvious to me about a quarter of the way in, and it made the rest of the read a slog until The Big Reveal. It’s about an author and his wife, on their way to pick up a Nobel-like award for his fiction. She narrates it and tells their story. It’s laden with Important Gender Issues to the detriment of not having believable or interesting characters. A pal asked me what book I read in 2014 disappointed me the most, and I didn’t hesitate to cite this one. That’s what I get for listening to my guests.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton – I was really not expecting the degree of antisemitism that cropped up early in this one. I loved The Age of Innocence when I read it a few years ago, and figured this would be along similar lines, but focused on the female character’s prospects. In broad terms, I was right, but the characterization of Rosedale and “his race” was pretty vile. I’m no PC warrior or anything, but stereotyping Jews (and this wasn’t focused on class-conscious merchant Jews, which would have been bad enough) is the mark of a second-rate mind (at best). I rallied on, and did enjoy much of the book. In fact, Rosedale’s bluntness turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of it, but I had this nettle pricking at me throughout the book.
Backing Into Forward: A Memoir – Jules Feiffer – Read it for the podcast. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Feiffer would follow through on our podcast-date, but I wanted to be prepared if he suddenly said, “Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.” His memoir, published in 2010, covers a lot of Feiffer’s dizzying career as a cartoonist, novelist, illustrator and screenwriter. He knows how to tell a story, as he’s proved for decades, and weaves comedic tales about his mother-obsessed childhood, his scams and meltdowns in the U.S. Army, his cross-country pilgrimage for a girl had moved on, and his political evolution. He’s led an immensely rich life, and his writing conveys the importance of the outside world on his art, and vice versa. I went into the book expecting an old man’s reminiscences, and was pleasantly surprised by how charged the prose was, and how laugh-out-loud funny Feiffer is. Listen to our podcast!
I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists – Richard Gehr – Read it for the podcast. Wildly entertaining profiles of a dozen cartoonists at the New Yorker, as well as two of the cartoon editors. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a blast to read about these cartoonists’ histories, their influences, their work habits, and how they’ve seen the magazine and the rest of the market change. It’s based on interviews that Gehr did with the cartoonists and editors (and which I used as research for a few of my podcasts this year). Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Mr. Wicker – Maria Alexander – Read it for the podcast. This one’s an urban fantasy novel (I think; it may be part of another genre) that reminded me in part of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman comics. It’s about a blocked writer who commits suicide, only to discover herself in a library of children’s hidden memories, governed by a sensual, scorched guy named Mr. Wicker. She gets restored to life, which sets in motion a plot by Mr. Wicker to get out of his eternal job assignment. It’s not a genre I do much reading in, so I was happy to find the book nicely written, carrying the reader along with a good deal of suspense, and not piling on unnecessary “rules” of the magic world that some writers use after they write themselves into a corner. Listen to our podcast!
The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany – Donald Westlake (ed. Levi Stahl) – Read it for the podcast. Past guest Dmitry Samarov suggested I get in touch with Levi Stahl, the editor of this book, and get him on the show, and I’m awfully glad he did. I’ve probably read a dozen novels by the late Donald Westlake (he wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms), but this was the first exposure I’ve had to his nonfiction. If you have any experience with his crime novels, you won’t be surprised to find that he was a wonderful writer even when he wasn’t crafting Parker or Dortmunder stories. This one’s a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the craft and business of writing, particularly in a genre like crime fiction (which Westlake refers to as “detective fiction”). It’s refreshing to read someone who’s so well-versed in the history of the genre, and so willing to talk about the economics of the business. His essays, reviews, appreciations, and letters are a joy to read. Podcast coming in 2015.
Give + Take – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. Enjoyable crime novel about a piano player who doubles as a thief, and the singer-thief he falls for. Having just finished that book of Westlake’s writing, it was little step down, but Westlake was a master, so that’s no big knock. Fitch carries the story along quite well, and the sections on the working life of the piano-player are awfully engaging. Podcast coming in 2015.
Senseless – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. A trade negotiator gets abducted, and gets brutally tortured by his Occupy-esque abductors. The kicker is, his whole experience is captured on live-streaming cameras, and the abductors are raising funds by having viewers vote on his fate. The torture, dragged out over weeks, is absolutely horrifying, and you really should not read this book if you have a weak stomach. I’m supposed to interview the author about a crime novel he wrote under a pseudonym, but I’m sure we’ll have some words about this one, and how he was able to write it. Podcast coming in 2015.
All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park – Read it for the podcast. Boy, was this a weird one. It’s a metafictional novel in three parts. First, it’s about an alternate world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War with a Man in the High Castle narrative about a future world won by the Union, only both stories are writing each other. The next two segments get really weird, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. The writing’s gorgeous, but I felt that the metafiction was a little too opaque for me, so I’m going to reread Mr. Park’s four-volume White Tyger series to see if that helps me make more sense of this one. There’s a lot of good stuff in this, but metafiction is so difficult to pull off, and I fear I didn’t have enough of a background to get everything I should have out of this. Podcast coming in 2015.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade – Walter Kirn – Read it for the podcast, I hope. At least, the author has said he’s up for recording with me sometime. This may be the best nonfiction book I read in 2014. It’s about “Clark Rockefeller,” who turned out to be a German national named Christian Gerhartsreiter. I was fascinated by the Rockefeller case when it came out that he was a fraud; I couldn’t imagine how his wife went so many years without figuring out her husband’s false identity. Turns out that the author, Walter Kirn, knew Rockefeller for years, and also never suspected the fraud. As Rockefeller is exposed and then charged with murder, Kirn grows more engrossed in the case, and his (and our) propensity to be fooled, to want to be fooled, by the promise of high society. Kirn does a fantastic job of balancing his reporting on the case with his own anecdotes and analysis, playing up his own weaknesses and trying to explore how a novelist, who’s so immersed in understanding character, can fail to see through such an audacious fraud. There’s a degree to which “Rockefeller”‘s ability to take interlocutors’ words and spin new stories to draw them in put me in mind of Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius“; something about not only the construction of new worlds, but the way they come to infect and permeate what we think of as reality. I can’t recommend this book enough. Podcast coming in 2015.
Not pictured: A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park – The first in a four-book series about an alternate earth and a changeling princess who was hidden in our world (speaking of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”). As I mentioned in the previous Paul Park item, I started this series to get a better grasp of Paul’s work, so this is technically For The Podcast. It has some deliberate nods to John Crowley’s Aegypt cycle of books, although I hope not the final volume, which I couldn’t fathom. This one does a good job evoking the alternate world, alluding to its strange history and laws, while bringing us up to speed on a 20-year plot to hide the princess who can be the salvation of Roumania against those nasty Germans. There’s a scene in the afterlife that’s absolutely breathtaking. Podcast coming in 2015.
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather – The last book I finished in 2014. One of my podcast-guests considers it The Great American Novel, so I was expecting a very different book than the one I got. It’s about a pair of Catholic missionaries in the American southwest after the Mexican-American War, and it’s almost a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel. I literally had no idea what to expect from the book, but the title left me thinking it’d be a Whiskey Priest tale, with awful, dissolute people abounding. Instead, it’s a very Catholic novel. At least, I’m hoping that’s why I felt so disconnected from it. It’s a beautiful work, with the landscape serving as a lead character, but I did feel as though its outlook was somehow alien to me. At first, I attributed it to the 1850s SW setting, but one of my favorite novels (The Leopard) is set in 1860s Italy, so that wasn’t it. I think the purity of the two missionaries’ vision of the world (not that it was naive), demonstrates a type of grace that I just don’t feel in my life. Also, I was watching season 3 of Breaking Bad at the same time, and that’s a very different vision of New Mexico right there.
* * *
And that’s it for 2014! At the moment, I’m in the second book of Paul Park’s White Tyger series, as I mentioned, along with Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve got plenty of podcast-related reading for 2015, but I’m also hoping to get to Climates (Andre Maurois), Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, more Stefan Zweig, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things (a re-read), and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (David Maurer).
Why don’t you go check out the past editions of this writeup?
“There is a kind of comfort in having a part of yourself that will never be known, can never be known, by others.”
Genre-jumping author Rupert Thomson joins the show to talk about his new novel, Secrecy (Other Press), a 1690’s-based thriller about the Florentine wax-sculptor Zumbo. Along the way, we talk about the arbitrariness of “historical fiction,” the perils of researcher’s block (as opposed to writer’s block), what he learned from a 90-minute audience with James Salter, discovering archaic Italian curses, letting one’s art follow one’s unconscious, the joys of visiting the graves and/or homes of his literary idols, why finding the psychological truth of a story is more important than the details and background, and why it always helps to know a good histopathologist. Go listen!
“When I first started out, what I liked was the unlikely image, the unlikely metaphor. What I like now is finding that simple sentence that captures something you haven’t thought of before.”
About our Guest
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels: Dreams of Leaving, The Five Gates of Hell, Air And Fire, The Insult, Soft!, The Book of Revelation, Divided Kingdom, Death of a Murderer, which was short-listed for the 2007 Costa Novel Award, and Secrecy. His memoir, This Party’s Got To Stop, won the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Award. He lives in London.
Credits: This episode’s music is Hotwax by Beck. The conversation was recorded at the Other Press offices on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Thomson by Graeme Robertson.
As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake way to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaid his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
—John Williams, Stoner
Click on the pic above to embiggen
I started the 2012 edition of Another Year, in the Books with a quote from the great book critic Michael Dirda. I have another one on hand from this year’s crop, but figured I’d lead off with one from the best novel I read in 2013. Still, if you’re pining for some Dirda, here you go:
More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text — this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phase, “at risk.” Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world’s literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.
—Michael Dirda, “Millennial Readings: Dec, 5 1999,” Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
I finished reading 38 books in 2013, although I did read one of them twice. Since this was the year that I really focused on producing a good podcast and bringing in good authors as guests, just about half of those books were ones I read to prep for interviews. That’s not to say they were like homework! In fact, a lot of them opened me up to new areas of thought, and some were simply authors I’d long overlooked. I don’t have any regrets about spending time with those books, nor with the 10 books that were rereads from past years (marked with an (r) in the writeup below, after the authors’ names).
It feel like my life is really the act of reading and rereading.
The only downside to rereading is that it’s time I don’t spend with a new (to me) book. That picture of the “class of 2013″ adds up to about 37 linear inches of books (click here for a larger version on Flickr). The total shelf-space in my library I currently have devoted to books (not including comics and magazines) is about 1250 linear inches. That means this 2013 crop constitutes less than 3% of the total amount of books in my library. The 2012 crop was 51 books, which is just insane.
Now, some of those books are duplicates, like the two translations of Proust, the Library of America collections of Philip Roth, the sentimentally held-onto editions of Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters, the five different editions of The Leopard, and other items that should held indicate that I’m a bit deranged.
But if we knock off, say, 100 linear inches of books from that count, that only gets us up to 3.2% of the current library. Meaning, if I was starting afresh and not bringing new books in, it would take me a little more than 30 years at this pace to work my way through everything.
But of course I’m not starting afresh, and I did just order some new books this morning. I’m also waiting for advance review copies (ARCs) of books from upcoming podcast-guests. So as I think I pointed out in the 2011 edition, my relationship with my library is really my relationship with death.
So I guess I better get to work telling you about the past year’s reading so I can get on with reading next year’s books! (Oh, and go check out this podcast so you can find out my guests’ favorite books from 2013!)
Bleak House – Charles Dickens (r) – I should probably do these write-ups as I finish reading the books. For the life of me, I’m not sure why I began rereading this one. It’s one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read, so I’m glad I returned to it after 20+ years. I read the book’s saddest scene in a Five Guys burger joint and still kinda teared up.
Confusion – Stefan Zweig – I think my Zweig expectations were too high after the great experiences I had with Chess Story and a collection of his shorter fiction in 2012. This was . . . good. Not great. Not keeping me utterly enthralled, but not boring me. It’s about a man who gets sent to university because he’s a wastrel, and becomes a great student, under the thrall of a masterful professor prone to mysterious behavior. The confusion of the title becomes clear to modern readers, but I don’t know how veiled or coded it was back in the 1920s, when Zweig wrote it. As I think about it a little for this writeup, I’m actually warming to it a little, in part because of its contrast with Stoner, which I’ll get to later.
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War – Fred Kaplan – This is the first one I read for a podcast guest, and boy, was it a doozy. Kaplan’s a really good writer on military issues, and he brings a ton of clarity to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the success of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the latter, its futility in the former, and how the guys behind COIN tried to shake up a U.S. military establishment that — post-Vietnam — wanted no part of this sort of warfare (despite getting immersed in it several times since the end of the Cold War). I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books, but this one was fantastic. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis – I’m not sure why this one didn’t grab me the way it has so darn many readers, but I’m starting to be concerned with the number of university-based novels I’ve been reading in the past year or so. I hesitate to say it was “too British,” but it might belong to a very specific type of British writing that I just don’t appreciate. Could also be the postwar era in which it was written and takes place; between that & the university setting, it’s like an alien environment to me. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more when I was younger, a perverse notion given how so many other books have flowered for me in middle age. Here’s another guy’s perspective.
A Sport and a Pastime – James Salter – I’d heard of Salter a few times over the years, but never tried him out until the publicity wave for his new novel, All That Is. This is another novel that’s almost contemporary and yet requires a recognition of the time & setting, the morals that were in place, etc. The prose itself had some beautiful, Tropic of Cancer-ish passages, although Salter’s main precursor looks to be Hemingway, with whom I’ve never exactly clicked. I enjoyed it enough to give another Salter novel a read later in the year.
Engine Summer – John Crowley – I had heard that this short novel is the second-best book by Crowley, behind his masterpiece, Little, Big, and is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever. I can’t argue with that, although my SF reading peaked during my teenage years. The way-post-apocalyptic setting reminded me a little of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there’s so much more going on in this book, and it’s tied together with an amazing plot device. I’d only read Crowley’s “fantasy” books before this, if that’s what you’d call Little, Big and the AEgypt novels, and now I kinda wish he wrote some more SF.
The Original 1982 – Lori Carson – One of my favorite singer/songwriters wrote her first novel! And I got to interview her about it! The publicity material described it as a cross between Almost Famous and Sliding Doors, and that’s about right. The lead character is a Lori Carson stand-in who had an abortion in 1982 and regrets it enough to reimagine a life in which she kept her baby. The narrative swings from her imagined life to her reality, although not in a disconcerting way. It’s a beautiful little book about the big and little decisions we make and how life sometimes doesn’t pay attention to what we want or do. Listen to our podcast about it!
Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda – A collection of columns from the Washington Post Book World c.1993-1999 by one of our best living book critics. Dirda’s work has always brought me joy and it was honor to sit down with him for an interview in 2012. These are appreciations, humor pieces, and brief essays, and if there’s an elegiac tone about the lost art of close reading, they’re still full of wonder. I oughtta re-interview him in 2014. Listen to our podcast from 2012!
Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson – I love Gibson’s novels, but his nonfiction just isn’t as good. It seems that he finds it tough to straddle the line of non-fiction and personal writing. It’s not his fault, because he’s engaged in a really specific form of novel-writing, for the most part, but it does go to show that some writers don’t make the jump from form to form very well.
The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy – Wallis Wilde-Menozzi – I have to admit to an embarrassing fact; there are 37 individual books on this list, and only 4 of them were written by women. Oh, and I read all 4 of them in preparation for podcast interviews. Man, I gotta diversify, huh? That said, this book was one of the best I read this year. Ms. Wilde-Menozzi’s prose style is gorgeous and the book has wonderful insights from the 40-plus years she’s spent in Italy. She discusses the various cultures and class- and gender-structures she encountered there, but intercuts the quotidian and the political with segments on art and architecture. It was a joy to interview her and I’m awfully glad to have read this one. (I bought extra copies as presents for future pod-guests.) Listen to our podcast about it!
Chess Story – Stefan Zweig (r) – I discovered this in 2012 and just find myself compelled to return to it. It’s an amazing novella about two men playing chess on a steamer from New York to Argentina during WWII. I have also given away many copies of this book, and bought two editions in German when I was in Nuremberg in October. Here’s one of the more beautiful passages:
From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Mohammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?
But keep in mind that it’s not all poetic language; it’s also got a devastating, inexorable plot. And it’s about the tension between imagination and the real, between art and politics. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but this book contains worlds. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it impossible to put down, and you’ll find yourself going back to it at the very least to tease out its storytelling mechanisms.
Moby-Dick – Herman Melville (r) – I re-re-reread this in 2009, but it was the book for this year’s Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College, so I jumped into the Pequod once again. The conversation we had about the book helped illuminate some pieces for me, esp. how the Quaker faith envisions God and how Ahab’s tension between that religion and his hunt for the whale tie the book in knots.
Little, Big – John Crowley (r) – With Bleak House, Moby-Dick, and Little, Big, I guess this was my year for giant-sized re-reads, huh? I set up an interview this year with the author, John Crowley, so I returned to Edgewood and one of the finest American novels. And I was struck by the Americanness of it; it’s timeless and yet it’s also enmeshed in a post-Vietnam mindset of urban destruction and national malaise. Knowing the broad strokes of it, I had a better time immersing myself in the language and imagery, as well as teasing out some of the bits I found inscrutable the first time around. It was almost like having a floor-plan of the Drinkwaters’ house, which remains bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.
The only downside of this whole experience is that, when I met Crowley for the interview, I brought along my wife’s old mass market paperback of Little, Big for him to inscribe. She rereads the novel every year or two, as she’s done since she was a teen. And I either forgot to mention it or he didn’t hear me say it, but he . . . um . . . inscribed it to me instead of Amy. On the plus side, there’s enough room on the inscription line to add her name, so I plan on bringing it up to Readercon next July in hopes that he’ll be able to amend it. Listen to our podcast about it!
Sabbath’s Theater – Philip Roth (r) – I don’t know what prompted me to pick this one up. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 1995, but it was a key work in Roth’s books of the past 15 years and, with Roth’s announcement of his “retirement” from writing, I gave it a go. Now I understand what was calling me back to it; almost all of Roth’s subsequent novels — the American Pastoral books, the Nemesis Quartet, The Dying Animal — all find their roots in this novel. Thread after thread, theme after theme, device after device, all crop up in Sabbath’s Theater. The lead, Mickey Sabbath, is also the last truly immense — I wanna say Shakespearean — character Roth created. Funnily enough, the book came up in two podcasts I recorded this year: both of those writers marveled over Sabbath’s Theater and how it separated Roth from the pack of his contemporaries.
Portrait Inside My Head: Essays – Phillip Lopate – Mr. Lopate was one of those Roth-admiring guests. I’d read a few of his pieces over the years, but when he consented to appear on my podcast, I only had a week or so to prepare. So I read more than 400 pages of his work in the span of 8 days, starting with this recent collection. At the risk of insulting the other fantastic writers and thinkers who’ve appeared on my show, I think Mr. Lopate’s command of his form — the personal essay — is greater than any other living writer’s at his or her form. This one has some great pieces in it; the centerpiece is The Lake of Suffering, Mr. Lopate’s essay about his child’s congenital illness over the first years of her life, but the topics are so varied that you’ll soon find yourself immersed in his erudition, personality and powers of observation. Listen to our podcast!
To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction – Phillip Lopate – Part of the “400 pages in 8 days” run. It’s a discussion of the craft of non-fiction — particularly Mr. Lopate’s branch of it — and it’s another book that I’ve bought multiple copies of, to give to friends and people who want to write. Listen to our podcast!
Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise – David Rothenberg – This was easily the strangest book I read in 2013. One of my guests, Maxim Jakubowski, connected me with David to talk about this book, which springboards from the phenomenon of the 17-year cicada to the notion that mankind gained rhythm from background noise of insects. It’s a fun theory, and Rothenberg brings all sorts of science and art into the conversation, while also exploring human stories that may not exactly prove or disprove his hypothesis, but help build a narrative about the role of man in nature, and nature in man. There’s an accompanying CD, in which Rothenberg accompanies insects like the cicada on his clarinet. Really, it’s a fascinating book that I never would have come across were it not for the podcast. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Oresteia – Aeschylus (tr. Lattimore) (r) – I reread Aeschylus’ revenge trilogy because I was a chapter or two into the next book on this list, which is all about revenge, and figured I should get a little background on the topic from its early days. This time around, I had some questions that I should bring up the next time I’m down at St. John’s. Why didn’t the Eumenides go after Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigenia (before the play begins)? After all, that’s a murder in the blood-line, which is what triggers the Furies’ pursuit of Orestes. And why is the first play named after Agamemnon when he only appears for one scene?
Payback: The Case for Revenge – Thane Rosenbaum – This book was dazzling, but I’m sure some people will find it infuriating. Mr. Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham (and also a novelist and essayist), argues that the legal system has eliminated the role of revenge in justice, to the detriment of society. I hesitate to say that it’s a very Hebraic notion of justice, so let’s say it’s an “un-Christian” notion. It bogs down a little on the chapter covering the neurobiology of revenge, but overall it’s an impressive and proscriptive piece of work about a key failing of the modern state. Listen to our podcast about it!
A Month in the Country – JL Carr – One of the tutors at St. John’s recommended this one during our Piraeus weekend on Moby-Dick in June. One Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my library and bought it on my Kindle. Three hours later, I got up and looked around with new eyes. It’s a wonderful, short novel (about 130 pages) about art, religion, class, sexuality and the upheaval of them all following WWI. It takes place in a sleepy town in the north of England, where a London-based art restorer takes month-long job uncovering and restoring a painting in a centuries-old church. There’s a movie of it starring very young Colin Firth and Ken Branagh, but give this one a read.
Checkpoint – Nicholson Baker – David Gates suggested I read this one, after I told him that I believe the worst crime of the Bush era is the amount of crappy art that came out from people who were opposed to the Bush era. It’s a conversation between two men, one of whom plans to kill George Bush. I’m of two minds about this book, neither of them good. First, I don’t think Baker has much of an ear for dialogue, and this is the second book I’ve read of his that consists solely of dialogue. Second, if a major publishing house put out a book consisting of a conversation between two men about killing Barack Obama, it would face a shitstorm of unimaginable proportions. But it was fine for Knopf to publish a fantasy about murdering a sitting president, because he was on the red team? Dude, we live in one messed-up time.
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth (r) – My brother asked me where he should start with Philip Roth. I told him, “Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater, for the short version.” Thane Rosenbaum, author of Payback (above), told me that his Roth really begins with The Ghost Writer. Still, I thought I’d go back to Roth’s breakthrough book and see if it would still make me laugh and cringe. It did.
The Death of Ivan Ilych – Leo Tolstoy (r) – Oh, you know: just wanted to cheer myself up.
Stoner – John Williams – I think it’s the best novel I read this year. It’s certainly the most harrowing. I’d heard about this book and its “lost classic” status for a few years now; I started it after reading an appreciation of it in the New Yorker by Tim Kreider. (I’d bought it a few months earlier at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.) Kreider refers to Stoner as the anti-Gatsby, and I think that’s dead-on. It tells the story of an English lit professor in Missouri, his humble beginnings, his frustrations in his profession and his marriage, and the few brief, magical moments of his life. All told, it chronicles a forgotten, forgettable life in beautiful but plain prose. I suppose I should compare it to the other university books I read this year, Lucky Jim and Confusion. There’s little overlap with Zweig’s book, but it does make an interesting contrast with Amis’ Lucky Jim, both in terms of being an Unlucky Stoner and in the way in which its very prose styles and depth of feeling form a midwestern contrast to Amis’ ‘Londonness.’ Please give this book a read but keep in mind that it’s almost unremittingly sad and frustrating. And please ignore this idiot.
A Month in the Country – JL Carr (r) – Well, a week or so after I read this the first time, I got a notice that the Annapolis chapter of the St. John’s Alumni Association would be discussing this book during a weekend that I was going to be down in Bethesda, MD. So I gave it a re-read and attended the conversation. The downside was that this session took place during the morning of Yom Kippur, so I was fasting, light-headed and thick-tongued. Still, it was good to talk with some Johnnies about it; I miss book-conversation more than any other aspect of my college/grad-school years. Well, except for the basketball and the girls.
Vineland – Thomas Pynchon (r) – Don’t ask me why. It was just because Pynchon’s new novel was coming out soon, and I had a feeling that it might have some similarities to Vineland, which I detested the first time I read it. (Note: not only do I remember the circumstances of buying that books — I was in a car with my old man in Ridgewood, NJ, saw it in a window display in the B. Dalton, told him to pull over and ran in to buy it — I also remember the funny dream I had about it before it came out: the author bio on the back cover-flap read, “Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Slow Learner,” but the author photo was — get this — of an empty room!) I got more out of it this time, insofar as I came into it with a little more perspective on how the Reagan years were perceived, especially by Californians. It’s still not a good novel, but I can slot it more easily into Pynchon’s body of work and, in my 40s, I can cut a lot more slack for authors than I could when I was 19.
The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran – Hooman Majd – I had never given much thought to what day-to-day life in Iran is like, so this book was a revelation. I read it in advance of an interview with the author, an Iranian-American journalist who chronicles a year of living in Iran with his (very American) wife and their 8-month-old child. It put me in mind of 1984 in several ways. Beyond the obvious perspective of living in a surveillance state, there are also all the little ways in which western sanctions against Iran affect its populace. I always felt that Orwell’s depictions of crappy gin and subpar cigarettes in Airstrip One are at least as compelling as his depictions of torture at the end of his book. Majd also includes a harrowing section in which a friend describes his time in Evin prison after the 2009 elections, a sort of Room 101 but with a glimmer of hope. It’s a fascinating book, both in its humanization of Iran’s people, but also in the implication that the middle-eastern country that has the most in common with Iran just might be Israel. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir – Bruce Jay Friedman – I interviewed the great cartoonist and artist Drew Friedman for the podcast, and mentioned that I’d love to record one with his dad sometime. He was pessimistic, but I figured I’d start reading up on the guy, just in case. My only experiences with Bruce Jay Friedman were his nonfiction and his cameo in my favorite unwatched Woody Allen movie, Another Woman, so I dived into this 2011 memoir. It’s a hoot, chronicling BJF’s literary development, his stint in the USAF, his magazine-writing/editing career, his leap into the freelance world, his adventures in playwriting, his stints in Hollywood, his evenings at Elaine’s, his friendship with Mario Puzo, and more. The book barely discusses his family life and his kids, but that’s not the subject of it, I guess (or that’s his way of not dealing with his parenting skills). I was kinda thrilled to find out that BJF is a big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a chance to record a podcast sometime. (I know: reading someone’s memoir without actually reading his work is similar to the time I read Stephen King’s On Writing without having read any of his fiction. I’m weird.)
The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning – Peter Trachtenberg – I once joked that the Arts section of the New York Sun was composed by the Tyler Durden of my unknowingly insomniac self. Almost every day that section featured articles that seemed to be written just for me. Which may be why that paper went under. I had a similar vibe reading The Book of Calamities to prep for a podcast with the author. In his discussion of suffering and what it means, Trachtenberg covers ground that I would have gravitated to: Gilgamesh, Rwanda, the Book of Job, the Oresteia, the contextualizing of 9/11, the use of suffering as history, and more.The subject matter can make it a hard book, but I think it’s pretty worthwhile. Listen to our podcast about it!
Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons – Peter Trachtenberg – Okay, this was a lot tougher of a book, even though it’s briefer and it’s about love instead of suffering. He takes the occasion of a lost cat and the kindasorta disintegration of his marriage to explore ideas of love, the workings — and misworkings — of memory, and . . . well . . . our relationship to cats. It’s also about the nature of writing non-fiction, a topic I find pretty interesting. Some of it delves deeply enough into domestic life that I felt a bit uncomfortable/intrusive, but that was the author’s choice, so hey. These two Trachtenberg books fit well together, and he’s another author I discovered through the network effect of the podcast. In this case, when I went up to VT to interview David Gates at Bennington’s low-residency MFA program, he was kind enough to show me around and introduce me to a few other writer-professors in the program, including Trachtenberg, Lopate, and a few others I hope to interview in 2014. Listen to our podcast about it!
Everyman – Philip Roth (r) – I read this every year or so. It’s about an old Jew who dies, and how his life has been defined to a large extent by ailments. It’s a very brief book, one that Roth considers part of his Nemesis Quartet. In some respects, it’s a muted version of Sabbath’s Theater, but its brevity doesn’t make it less effective.
The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion – Virginia Postrel – Another podcast-related book, but I read and enjoyed Ms. Postrel’s two previous books — The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style — so it’s not like I would’ve skipped this one. It’s a gorgeous piece of work about the history and effects of glamour. That may sound like a lightweight topic, but Ms. Postrel shows how it warrants seriousness. She avoids the easy out of saying, “Being susceptible to glamour is a sign of weakness,” and instead uses the phenomenon to explore what it means to be human and how (sometimes) illusions help us discover a deeper reality. Did that sound cliche or trite? I apologize. It’s a good, visually stunning book with lots of good insights into glamour and human behavior. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Fifty-First State– Lisa Borders – Here’s what I said about it in the intro to our podcast conversation:
It takes place in the southern farmland of New Jersey, where a 17-year-old kid’s parents have just died in an awful car wreck. His half-sister, who’s about 20 years older and an artsy photographer in New York City, has to move back to her hometown to take care of him through his last year of high school. That’s a kind of simple pitch, but it’s a lovely novel. It’s more emotionally real than most contemporary fiction I’ve read, really getting into how grief can warp our behavior. Lisa also does a great job of portraying both what it’s like to be a 17-year-old bundle of hormones in a sleepy farm town, and to be in your mid-thirties and really not happy with having to leave the big city, even if your life there wasn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys. What I’m saying is, you should give this one a read.
The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism – Daniel Goldhagen – I read this as prep for a podcast, but Mr. Goldhagen had to postpone, so I’m hoping to sit down with him and talk about antisemitism sometime in 2014. It’s not a conversation I’m looking forward to, exactly. Goldhagen paints a very bleak picture, drawing on the history and roots of antisemitism and its newest, global incarnation. He cites polls where countries that have virtually no Jews whatsoever (like China) nonetheless answer that Jews have too much power in their country. I was cheered that he supported one of my pet theories about the resurgence of antisemitism among white Europeans: a sense of shame over how they couldn’t wait to expel Jews from their countries during the Nazi era transforms into a form of resentment that is equally virulent against Jews. As in, the living Jews, both in Israel and in these countries, are a reminder of how awful their own people behaved during the war, and they take it out as rage against Jews, as if to imply that the Jews somehow deserved that awful treatment. Anyway, if you really wanna feel depressed for the future of Jews in this world, give this one a read.
Solo Faces – James Salter – More Hemingwayesque prose from James Salter, this time about mountain climbing. A past pod-guest told me how much he felt this book captured the feeling of climbing; I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never climbed more than a 20–foot face in the woods near my home. This book contains one of the most savagely manly psychotherapy sessions ever. Its climax was so over the top that I felt uncomfortable about even laughing a little to defuse it.
Getting Personal: Selected Essays – Phillip Lopate – I’d begun this broad collection of Mr. Lopate’s essays during the buildup to our interview, but didn’t finish it until a few months later. If you’d like to get started reading his personal essays, this is a perfect place to start. As I mentioned earlier, he’s a master of this form. I was in awe of his control of language, tone, pacing, characterization, and more. Nowadays, when everyone has a “book of essays” that consists of little more than embarrassing stories from adolescence, it’s refreshing to see how wonderful this form can be. Listen to our podcast!
Barracuda in the Attic – Kipp Friedman – This is a new memoir from a son of Bruce Jay Friedman. It forms a nice companion to Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir, in that it actually covers the relationship of BJF to his family. You don’t have to know much about the family history to enjoy it; the stories are pretty self-contained and relate a youngest-son’s perspective on a wacky family dynamic. Kipp’s dad and two brothers (Drew and Josh Alan Friedman) each make lovely contributions to the book. Listen to our podcast about it!
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin – The author & I overlapped at college, though we don’t remember each other. A mutual friend did, and suggested I interview Brett for the show. I picked up a copy of his book at our local library and devoured it in two days. It’s a really insightful book about the recent golden age of TV drama, and the writer-creators who were at its core. The Difficult Men are both the male leads — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and others — and the aforementioned writer-creators — David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Wiener, and others — and Brett does a great job of depicting the highs and lows of the writers’ rooms for these shows, how they managed to get on the air, how the viewing public approached them, and why we may not be in such a golden age now. If you dig those great TV shows of the past decade-plus, you need to read this one. Our podcast is coming up soon, so check the archives page after January 7.
The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman – Bruce Jay Friedman – And here’s where the year ends. I started reading some of BJF’s stories so I’d get more of a flavor of his writing, in case an interview came together. Within 60 or 70 pages, I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. It was somewhere in the middle of “Detroit Abe,” the short story that would later become the movie Doctor Detroit, that it all clicked for me. I finally understood why my lyric flights always crashed, and my mystical expositions fizzled. I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe. Now I just wish I was writing 30 or 40 years ago, when there was a market for this stuff. This past weekend, I began a new story and struggled like crazy with the first page of it. I gave up, frustrated. That night, I began reading a BJF story from this book, realized exactly what my opening line should be and why the previous iterations didn’t work, and went back downstairs to begin writing. If I didn’t sideline myself by writing this giant mess, I’m sure I’d have finished the story by now!
But seriously, I’m so glad to have made this discovery.
And that’s it for 2013’s books! According to my Kindle, I’m around 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which I’d been meaning to start for a while. I also have a few books in from upcoming pod-guests, but I’m hoping to balance that with more of what’s already in my library. I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, Salter’s Light Years, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge , Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante’s Inferno (next June’s Piraeus book), Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and . . . but that’s already looking too ambitious, right?
Sigh. Seeya in 2014!
To celebrate the publication of Middle C, the new novel by literary legend William Gass, I sat down with writer Greg Gerke, who interviewed Gass for Tin House literary magazine. We talked about Gass’ position in the postmodern literary tradition (as it were), what Greg learned over the course of reading much of Gass’ writings and interviewing The Great Man, what it’s like to construct a literary monument to horror, which authors Greg discovered through Gass’ essays over the years, how you can’t judge a man by his (roommate’s) bookshelf, why Gass holds self-publishing in disdain, and how one can build a powerful literary career by putting Sound Before Story.
About our Guest
Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, and Mississippi Review. He’s the author of the short story collection, There’s Something Wrong with Sven. You can read his work and find links to his criticism at greggerke.com and Big Other.
Credits: This episode’s music is Life’s a Gas by T-Rex. The conversation was recorded at Greg Gerke’s apartment in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Microphone into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.
Reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing: these are the activities organizing the life of this episode’s guest, Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness! We talk about his wonderful book (go read it!), his addiction to ballroom dancing, how to find joy in the day-to-day world, why he hates book clubs, what Dallas, TX is like for a secular Philadelphia Jew, how he turned me on to one of my favorite novels, who his Desert Island Poets are, how he writes about the visual arts, why the world’s great novels are lost on the young, and what it was like to attend his 50th high school reunion. (Also, Harold Bloom crops up yet again; I really gotta try to get him on the show sometime. Boy, talk about the anxiety of influence . . .)
One of the best things about doing this podcast is that I get to meet some wonderful people. In this case, meeting with Willard over two afternoons (story to come) was like making a new old friend.
About our Guest
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Southwest Review, the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Seven Pleasures, he’s also written or edited How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. He writes about the arts for the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.
Credits: This episode’s music is This Charming Man by The Smiths. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.