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.
“There were times when I was transcribing the tapes and I’d catch my breath and say, ‘Oh, my God.’ I would stop the tape and just sit there, staring into space. Did I hear what I just heard? It was a shocking, dramatic experience.”
Is wisdom possible? One of my favorite writers, Phillip Lopate, returns to The Virtual Memories Show to talk about his new book, A Mother’s Tale, where he revisits a series of taped conversations he had with his mother in the mid-’80s (and didn’t listen to for 30+ years). We talk about listening to his mother’s voice years after her death, whether I should record with my parents, the way people try to be honest but back away in the face of their own mythologies, the one venue he’s always wanted to write for, the border traffic between fiction and nonfiction, the impact of the 2016 presidential election on his psyche, his prediction for the New York Mets, what it’s like for him to write a blog and the mistrust between mother and son that never goes away. Give it a listen! And go buy A Mother’s Tale (Mad River Books)! (And here’s our 2013 conversation.)
“I feel like all the values I grew up with were repudiated in one election.”
“”We carry this adolescent self in us for so long, we’re not prepared to see ourselves as older.”
About our Guest
Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, and his collections: Getting Personal, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head, and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is professor of writing. His new book is A Mother’s Tale.
(There’s a more extensive version at his website.)
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 Mr. Lopate’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Lopate by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I’ve never felt so happy, but I’ve never felt so mortal.”
Poet Rachel Hadas returns to the show to talk about her new books, Talking To The Dead (Spuyten Duyvil Press), and Questions in the Vestibule (Northwestern University Press). It’s been two years since we last talked (over here), so I had plenty of questions for her. How did she rebuild her life after losing her husband to early onset dementia? How did she wind up pals with James Merrill (and what’s her take on his Ouija poems)? What do we lose and gain in the act of translation? And how did she become a love poet after spending her career writing elegies? Listen in to find out!
“It’s like Forster said, there’s a sense that the great poets are sitting at a table, synchronically all writing at the same time.”
You should check out this extra material from our conversation: Backdrop: Merrill in Stonington, a video essay Rachel made with her husband, Shalom Gorewitz, and The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation, a collection of essays commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. Also, here’s the blog post I wrote about translating Tolstoy.
“I’m at a point in my career where I feel fortunate to be able to publish what I’m writing.”
Also, if you want to find out who she’s reading nowadays and get a list of the books we talked about, join our Patreon and become a monthly contributor to The Virtual Memories Show! At the end of February, the new episode of our patron-only podcast, Fear of a Square Planet, will go up with a bonus segment about who Rachel’s reading lately and why.
About our Guest
Rachel Hadas’s book of selected prose pieces, Talking To The Dead, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2015. Her new book of poems, Questions in the Vestibule, is forthcoming (April 2016) from Northwestern University Press, which will also publish her verse translations of Euripides’ dramas Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia Among the Taurians. The author of a score of books of poetry, essays, and translations, Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. She and her husband, artist Shalom Gorewitz, have been working on marrying poetry and video; some of their collaborative work, including a piece about James Merrill, can be seen at www.rachelandshalomshow.com.
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 Ms. Hadas’ home 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. All photos of Ms. Hadas by Shalom Gorewitz.
At the end of last year’s writeup, I mentioned that I was 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale. I bailed on it; just wasn’t feeling it, which may have been due to reading it on my Kindle vs. print. I also mentioned that I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, James Salter’s Light Years, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. How’d I fare? I didn’t get to Sebald or The Radetzky March, I gave up on Light Years after 100 pages, did read Bleeding Edge, Stern and the whole Divine Comedy, and never got back to Kahneman’s book.
Click on the pic above to embiggen
Reading for my Virtual Memories Show podcast dominated my book selection this year. Around two-thirds of the books I read were by guests or were for background for our interviews. I’m not complaining; a lot of them were really good, and I may never have gotten around to them without the impetus of the show! There were some periods where I was chasing, or just trying to stay afloat with reading. That said, when I finally got ahead of the guest list in April, I took it upon myself to read Dante, which of course turned out to be fantastic.
Anyway, I read more than 50 books this year, but not all of it was Dante-sized. I still haven’t made an appreciable dent in my library, which keeps creeping up as new pod-guest-books come in, along with my own purchases and gifts from pals. I’ve asked our handyman to build me a couple of book carts, so I can pretend that there’s enough shelf space downstairs for everything.
The list below only includes prose work. I feel like including comics would be cheating, but I do have to say that one of the best books I read last year was Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about her parents’ deaths in their mid-90s. If you’re using this as a shopping list, definitely put that one at the top. If you read smart comics, you should also check out Here, by Richard McGuire, a full-length version of the groundbreaking six-page comic he made in 1989. You’ll never look at a corner of your living room the same again. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s Chris Ware’s take on Here.) And give Over Easy, by Mimi Pond, a read. (I did a podcast with Roz Chast, and pair with Mimi Pond. Here’s the one with Roz, and part 1 and part 2 with Mimi.)
Unlike past years, I’m not going to take this space to ruminate on midlife, mortality, the pleasure of books, etc. Well, it’s all about the pleasure of books, I suppose. Enjoy, and good reading in 2015!
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Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry – Rachel Hadas – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Willard Spiegelman. It’s a memoir about the period in which Rachel’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a beautiful book that details both her husband’s decline and the poetry that helped sustain Rachel through that gradual, terrible loss. I’m a poetry imbecile; that is, I don’t spend enough time with poetry, because of my preference for novels, but I was pretty immersed in this one. Listen to our podcast!
Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora – Emily Raboteau – Read it for the podcast, as recommended by past guest Peter Trachtenberg. It’s the author’s exploration of race as she travels the world. She’s a very light-skinned black woman, at least by American standards. In Jamaica, she’s considered white, and in Africa, she’s something else completely. It’s a compelling book about identity and blackness in America. Listen to our podcast!
Comics Art – Paul Gravett – Read it for the podcast, in time for a business trip to England, where I connected with the author. It’s a good overview of the comics form, without the America-centricity that can crop up in that sort of survey. The book was commissioned as part of the Art series for the Tate, and it does have a sort of museum aspect to it, but I mean that in a good way. Paul is so so knowledgeable about comics, and it was a pleasure to read the book and then talk with him for something like four hours over an afternoon. Listen to our podcast!
Black Cracker – Josh Alan Friedman – Read it for the podcast, as part of my “Capturing The Other Friedmans” series of interviews. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Josh’s childhood, where he wound up as the only white student in an all-black school in the ’60s. It’s hysterically funny, but I was a little nervous about people noticing the cover while I was reading it on a British Railways ride. The book was particularly interesting because I read it after reading Josh Alan’s youngest brother’s book about their childhood (Barracuda in the Attic), their dad’s memoir (Lucky Bruce, which I reread soon after this), and hearing middle brother Drew’s stories about childhood. It’s not like a Rashomon situation, but each rendition creates a fuller picture of the tensions and dynamics of these kids and their parents. I’d love to get all the family together for a group interview, but I’m afraid it could lead to bloodshed, possibly mine. Listen to our podcast!
About Harry Towns
The Current Climate
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (r)
A Mother’s Kisses – Bruce Jay Friedman – Read it all for the podcast, but also because I made the discovery of Bruce Jay Friedman’s fiction in 2013. (As you may or may not recall, I wrote, “I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. . . . I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe.”) Stern and A Mother’s Kisses supported the claim Bruce’s son made to me, that their dad was Philip Roth before Philip Roth. The two books of Harry Town stories, About Harry Town and The Current Climate, helped me think more about my Abe Loesser stories. Several of the chapters in them mirror episodes from BJF’s memoir, Lucky Bruce, which I re-read once we were definitely on to record a show. I was interested in how Bruce rewrote the stories of his life for fiction and for memoir. We didn’t go into that topic extensively during our conversation, but it did give me a sort of license to play more with my experiences and bend them out of strict re-telling and into art. Listen to our podcast!
The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) – Technically not for the podcast, although it did serve as background when I interviewed George Prochnik a little while later. This was the new translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, which he sent out to his publisher shortly before his suicide in 1942. It paints a magical picture of pre-WWI Vienna, and a harrowing picture of Austria after that war. Some of the most evocative material is about Zweig’s own development, and what it was like to live in a time when one could travel the world without a passport. The New York city segment is a joy. It’s a remarkable book. I don’t know if there’s a “key” to understanding Zweig’s suicide, but contrasting the world of yesterday with the future that was unfolding — even with an Allied win over the Axis — it was clear that Zweig didn’t want to live through another reconstruction or face a bureaucratized future. Listen to my Zweig podcast with George Prochnik.
Visible City – Tova Mirvis – Read it for the podcast. This was pitched by the publisher, and I had some reticence about it; from the description they gave, it sounds like Mommy Lit, which is not my thing. It had more going on than that, lucky for me, in terms of urban exploration and struggling with Judaism. I was bummed to find that the closing line of my short story about the High Holidays was mirrored in her book, as a minor line describing a character, but I refused to give it up. Listen to our podcast, even though I didn’t do a good job on this one, for a variety of reasons.
The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 – DG Myers – Read it for the podcast. The first non-fiction / non-memoir of this year’s reading. The late Prof. Myers (he died in September 2014) writes a wonderfully readable history of creative writing programs, from their inception to the mutant self-replicating form they’ve evolved into. It’s an illuminating piece of scholarship about a system that seems broken at first glance (that is, treating creative writing as an accredited program leads to teaching it for the sake of making more formulaic writers and/or more creative writing teachers); with an understanding of its history, we see far better how it ended up like this. Note: I’ve never taken a creative writing class. Listen to our podcast!
Hyde – Daniel Levine – Read it for the podcast. It’s not exactly a revisionist take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, not like that book about Ahab’s wife. Rather, it tells the classic story from Hyde’s perspective. I was suspicious about the premise (it was another book pitched by the publisher), but it’s really well written and Levine does a great job of making sure his story fits into the mechanics of the source story. Giving voice to Hyde — and not going with the easy out of making him the unrestrained id of the Victorian era — Levine manages to create a tense horror story that we thought we knew. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald – I picked this up on the suggestion of DG Myers. I’d never read Fitzgerald, and zoomed through this one over the course of an afternoon. It’s gorgeous and understated, and apparently that’s a hallmark of her work. I picked up the two Modern Library collections of her work recently, and plan on reading more of her work. I’m awfully sad that I won’t get new recommendations from Prof. Myers, but he left a wealth of writing about literature on his blog over the years.
The Cold Song – Linn Ullmann – Read it for the podcast. It’s a lot of books: a murder mystery, a fairy tale, a family drama. I was swept up by the fragility of the characters, the compulsion to lie, the unendingness of a family’s grief, the ways in which loved ones fail to communicate. It’s set in Norway, but it almost feels like another world. It’s such a strange and compelling book, while seeming “normal” on its face, that I can’t really come up with the right words to describe it, beyond “You should read this.” Listen to our podcast: part 1 and part 2!
Mortality – Christopher Hitchens – Another suggestion of DG Myers, who was working on a book about his cancer experience. In our conversation, he lamented that Hitchens died so soon after his cancer diagnosis, because he hoped to see more writing from Hitchens about the process of dying. Ironically, Myers himself died far sooner than he expected. He thought he had another one or two years of life when we spoke in March, but he died six months later. And now those of us who knew him can lament that he too died before he could tell us more about Life on Planet Cancer (the title he settled on for his book). Hitchens’ essays come from the incredibly specific experience of his cancer, but his graceful writing brings it to life.
Not pictured: This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses – Lynne Sharon Schwartz – Read it for the podcast. We met at Bennington in 2013 when I drove up to interview David Gates; they’re both part of the Low Residency MFA faculty. These essays remind me very much of Phillip Lopate’s work, and it makes me wonder if that’s coincidental or if there’s a sort of generational approach to the personal essay that they both characterize. Probably the former. The centerpiece of the book is an essay about her heart surgery, and it’s digressive and detailed and a wonder to read. Listen to our podcast!
All That Is – James Salter – Likely the final book by a great American author I didn’t get around to until 2013. That year, I read A Sport and a Pastime and Solo Faces, and felt stupid that I’d missed out on a hybrid of Hemingway and Henry Miller all these years. His new book extends to cover the shape of a man’s life, with its myriad mistakes and friendships and failed loves and admission of age. For some reason, I felt echoes with Philip Roth’s Everyman, although Salter’s language is more beautiful than Roth’s.
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 2: Purgatorio
The Divine Comedy, Vol. 3: Paradiso – Dante (tr. Durling) – As I mentioned in the intro, I got ahead of the podcast-reading list around April, so I took the opportunity to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I picked this translation on the recommendation of one of my tutors at St. John’s College. It’s a prose translation with line breaks that mirror the poem; he and another tutor I consulted with contended that it’s better to go with a prose translation than a rhyming one, because Dante’s Italian is almost impossible not to rhyme, and it forces a false rhythm on the text. Anyway, it deserves all the accolades, and I weirdly found Purgatorio to be more enjoyable than the Inferno. I think it’s because the souls in Purgatory, even while they suffer awful torments, have hope that they’ll complete their purgation and ascend to Paradise, while the souls in Hell have abandoned all hope. Paradiso, I have to say, was the least enjoyable of the three poems, probably due to being the least concrete. Its abstractness and focus on the church’s founders/pioneers didn’t resonate with me the way the suffering and the stories of the lost did.
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World – George Prochnik – Read it for the podcast. One of the best books I read this year. It’s a biography covering Stefan Zweig’s final years, leading up to his suicide in 1942, but it’s also about Prochnik’s father’s flight from Austria. I found it to be a beautiful work, meditating on the meanings of exile, Zweig’s inability to cope with refugee life in New York despite his privileged position, and the culture that was lost with the rise of Nazism. Prochnik travels to many of Zweig’s waypoints during his last years — England, Manhattan, Westchester, Petropolis — but the book’s most haunting moments come in Austria. It’s a fantastic book (and one I would’ve read regardless of the podcast possibilities). Listen to our podcast!
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson – Read it for the podcast. An enjoyable novel set in 17th century Florence. It’s got sex, murder, religious hypocrisy (hence the need for secrecy), art and aesthetics, plague tableaux, and a true-life lead character in wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo. I’d never read Thomson before, and apparently his hallmark is jumping from genre to genre and style to style. I’m thinking I need to check out more of his work, but as you can see from the rest of the list, I was a little busy this year. Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (re) – I reread this one on a whim, just to recapture that feeling of loneliness, of the mystery of experience and the failings of communication. I lead an exciting life.
Nose Down, Eyes Up – Merrill Markoe – Read it for the podcast. It’s a fun novel about a 40-something layabout in LA (named Gil) who realizes one day that he can understand what dogs are saying and communicate with them. Merrill does a great job portraying the world as perceived by dogs, in terms of how they’d logically understand the behavior of humans. They can’t for the life of ’em figure out why we keep picking up their crap and putting it in bags. Listen to our podcast!
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon – Like many of his readers, I’d wondered if Pynchon would write about “modern times,” as in post-9/11. The closest he came to his own era was Vineland, published in 1990 and taking place in 1984. This one treats of the months before and after 9/11, and it’s as weird, elliptical, funny, not-quite-sensical as I’ve come to expect from his novels. There were segments where this one seemed to overlap with William Gibson’s post-9/11 novels, and I think that’s partly because of WG’s status as a Pynchon novitiate, but also because the general response to these times by any novelist with a Big Perspective is to get caught up in the wheels within wheels of conspiracy, malignity and neglect by Forces Larger Than Us. I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and it made for an interesting segue from Inherent Vice, which takes place in the late ’60s and sorta has to shoe-horn the internet (and its ramifications) into a world that really had No Idea What Was Coming.
At Last – Edward St. Aubyn – This series, the Patrick Melrose novels, was recommended to me by Peter Trachtenberg at the end of 2013. Then there was a big New Yorker profile on the author and the ways in which his abusive childhood is mirrored in Melrose’s stories. I devoured the novels in pretty short order. They’re almost a sort of A Dance to the Music of Time, but with a smaller cast of characters and history, and with child-rape at the heart of the whole shebang. I enjoyed the first novel the most, mainly because of the utter vividness of Melrose’s monstrous rapist of a father. The second novel, in which Melrose goes on a drug bender while in New York to claim his father’s ashes, is a close runner-up. A lot of “writing as therapy” can make for bad art, but St. Aubyn does a wonderful job of turning the horrific circumstances of his childhood into a compelling series of novels. They’re necessarily brief; I think too much time in any of these tales would grow tiresome, even if there are characters with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m sure there are plenty of nuances of British culture and class that I missed, but the acid portraits are still pretty amazing.
The Incentive of the Maggot: Poems
The Great Wave: Poems – Ron Slate – Read them for the podcast. Every year, I tell myself that I need to read more poetry, so I was happy to book a podcast with Ron and let myself slow down to read these two collections of his work. I enjoyed the first one more, and he concurred that it’s a better collection, mainly because the lines are given more room to breathe. Many of the poems are grounded in a sort of working life to which I was able to relate: not the labor of the service biz or the factory, but one of Business, where the seeming romance of travel can wear thin and one looks for minor bits of magic to keep from growing numb. Listen to our podcast!
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes – This was recommended to me by Phillip Lopate as one of the best books he’d read in 2013. It’s a novel about a New York writer in Hollywood who falls into a relationship with a suicidal gal. (As in, he first sees her when she’s trying to kill herself by walking into the Pacific.) It’s in a sorta laconic style, where the events, even as they grow more dramatic, aren’t treated with great intensity, even though the narrator is struggling to cope with the relationship. It made me think I need to go re-read Nathanael West next year.
The Horned Man – James Lasdun – Read it for the podcast (we haven’t recorded yet). The novel’s a psychodrama about a college literature professor who may or may not be framed for several murders. There’s a harassment aspect to the professor’s history that gets really weird because, a bunch of years later, the author was accused by a student of harassment and stealing her novel. He wrote a memoir about it called Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, which I’ll be reading before we get together to record. This novel’s enjoyable in its strangeness; once the unreliability of the narrator is established, it’s a little difficult not to fall into a guessing game of “what really happened,” but Lasdun takes the story away from that easy out and proceeds into a surreal conclusion. Podcast coming in 2015!
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor – Jonathan Rose – Read it for the podcast. This is a literary biography of Winston Churchill, and Prof. Rose does a marvelous job of connecting the books and plays WC read and enjoyed with his major life points and policy decisions. I didn’t know all that much about WC’s early career, and this book helps illuminate that period of his life along with the aforementioned literary influences (of course, it’s up to debate as to how influential those literary influences were on WC’s decisions, but Rose makes plausible scenarios for many of them). I was glad to learn that Churchill was among the first science fiction politicians. Listen to our podcast!
Doll Palace – Sara Lippmann – Read it for the podcast. I think we connected because she found the podcast I did with David Gates. This collection of fiction is Sara’s first book, and it’s got some intense and powerful short stories in it. The author told me her work’s been described as “Jewish gothic,” and I think that’s appropriate. There’s a degree of Flannery O’Connor to her stories, even though the setting (and the religion) are quite different. She writes good sentences, creates compelling characters, and puts the reader in some uncomfortable frames of mind. Listen to our podcast!
Last Night – James Salter – I was waiting down at the local library for my wife’s bus from NYC (the bus stop is in the library parking lot), and took this slim collection of stories off the shelf. I devoured one story during the wait, checked the book out and read the rest of it over the next 24 hours. I’m still embarrassed not to have discovered Salter until 2013. The title story, about an assisted suicide, has a Poe-like twist/change of tone, but it’s not all about storytelling trickery.
Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov – Read it for the podcast. Really fun collection of essays about the author’s career as a cab-driver. He published a previous book on the subject, but that one focused on the work-week, and this one covers Dmitry’s time from his first shift to his last, from Boston to Chicago. He’s also a painter, and the book includes a number of his drawings made while sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab. (Not while driving.) Listen to our podcast!
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer – A few guests and pals told me I need to read her work, and recommended this one. I was pretty disappointed in it; the big twist was pretty obvious to me about a quarter of the way in, and it made the rest of the read a slog until The Big Reveal. It’s about an author and his wife, on their way to pick up a Nobel-like award for his fiction. She narrates it and tells their story. It’s laden with Important Gender Issues to the detriment of not having believable or interesting characters. A pal asked me what book I read in 2014 disappointed me the most, and I didn’t hesitate to cite this one. That’s what I get for listening to my guests.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton – I was really not expecting the degree of antisemitism that cropped up early in this one. I loved The Age of Innocence when I read it a few years ago, and figured this would be along similar lines, but focused on the female character’s prospects. In broad terms, I was right, but the characterization of Rosedale and “his race” was pretty vile. I’m no PC warrior or anything, but stereotyping Jews (and this wasn’t focused on class-conscious merchant Jews, which would have been bad enough) is the mark of a second-rate mind (at best). I rallied on, and did enjoy much of the book. In fact, Rosedale’s bluntness turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of it, but I had this nettle pricking at me throughout the book.
Backing Into Forward: A Memoir – Jules Feiffer – Read it for the podcast. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Feiffer would follow through on our podcast-date, but I wanted to be prepared if he suddenly said, “Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow.” His memoir, published in 2010, covers a lot of Feiffer’s dizzying career as a cartoonist, novelist, illustrator and screenwriter. He knows how to tell a story, as he’s proved for decades, and weaves comedic tales about his mother-obsessed childhood, his scams and meltdowns in the U.S. Army, his cross-country pilgrimage for a girl had moved on, and his political evolution. He’s led an immensely rich life, and his writing conveys the importance of the outside world on his art, and vice versa. I went into the book expecting an old man’s reminiscences, and was pleasantly surprised by how charged the prose was, and how laugh-out-loud funny Feiffer is. Listen to our podcast!
I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists – Richard Gehr – Read it for the podcast. Wildly entertaining profiles of a dozen cartoonists at the New Yorker, as well as two of the cartoon editors. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a blast to read about these cartoonists’ histories, their influences, their work habits, and how they’ve seen the magazine and the rest of the market change. It’s based on interviews that Gehr did with the cartoonists and editors (and which I used as research for a few of my podcasts this year). Listen to our podcast!
Not pictured: Mr. Wicker – Maria Alexander – Read it for the podcast. This one’s an urban fantasy novel (I think; it may be part of another genre) that reminded me in part of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman comics. It’s about a blocked writer who commits suicide, only to discover herself in a library of children’s hidden memories, governed by a sensual, scorched guy named Mr. Wicker. She gets restored to life, which sets in motion a plot by Mr. Wicker to get out of his eternal job assignment. It’s not a genre I do much reading in, so I was happy to find the book nicely written, carrying the reader along with a good deal of suspense, and not piling on unnecessary “rules” of the magic world that some writers use after they write themselves into a corner. Listen to our podcast!
The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany – Donald Westlake (ed. Levi Stahl) – Read it for the podcast. Past guest Dmitry Samarov suggested I get in touch with Levi Stahl, the editor of this book, and get him on the show, and I’m awfully glad he did. I’ve probably read a dozen novels by the late Donald Westlake (he wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms), but this was the first exposure I’ve had to his nonfiction. If you have any experience with his crime novels, you won’t be surprised to find that he was a wonderful writer even when he wasn’t crafting Parker or Dortmunder stories. This one’s a no-brainer for anyone who cares about the craft and business of writing, particularly in a genre like crime fiction (which Westlake refers to as “detective fiction”). It’s refreshing to read someone who’s so well-versed in the history of the genre, and so willing to talk about the economics of the business. His essays, reviews, appreciations, and letters are a joy to read. Podcast coming in 2015.
Give + Take – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. Enjoyable crime novel about a piano player who doubles as a thief, and the singer-thief he falls for. Having just finished that book of Westlake’s writing, it was little step down, but Westlake was a master, so that’s no big knock. Fitch carries the story along quite well, and the sections on the working life of the piano-player are awfully engaging. Podcast coming in 2015.
Senseless – Stona Fitch – Read it for the podcast. A trade negotiator gets abducted, and gets brutally tortured by his Occupy-esque abductors. The kicker is, his whole experience is captured on live-streaming cameras, and the abductors are raising funds by having viewers vote on his fate. The torture, dragged out over weeks, is absolutely horrifying, and you really should not read this book if you have a weak stomach. I’m supposed to interview the author about a crime novel he wrote under a pseudonym, but I’m sure we’ll have some words about this one, and how he was able to write it. Podcast coming in 2015.
All Those Vanished Engines – Paul Park – Read it for the podcast. Boy, was this a weird one. It’s a metafictional novel in three parts. First, it’s about an alternate world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War with a Man in the High Castle narrative about a future world won by the Union, only both stories are writing each other. The next two segments get really weird, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. The writing’s gorgeous, but I felt that the metafiction was a little too opaque for me, so I’m going to reread Mr. Park’s four-volume White Tyger series to see if that helps me make more sense of this one. There’s a lot of good stuff in this, but metafiction is so difficult to pull off, and I fear I didn’t have enough of a background to get everything I should have out of this. Podcast coming in 2015.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade – Walter Kirn – Read it for the podcast, I hope. At least, the author has said he’s up for recording with me sometime. This may be the best nonfiction book I read in 2014. It’s about “Clark Rockefeller,” who turned out to be a German national named Christian Gerhartsreiter. I was fascinated by the Rockefeller case when it came out that he was a fraud; I couldn’t imagine how his wife went so many years without figuring out her husband’s false identity. Turns out that the author, Walter Kirn, knew Rockefeller for years, and also never suspected the fraud. As Rockefeller is exposed and then charged with murder, Kirn grows more engrossed in the case, and his (and our) propensity to be fooled, to want to be fooled, by the promise of high society. Kirn does a fantastic job of balancing his reporting on the case with his own anecdotes and analysis, playing up his own weaknesses and trying to explore how a novelist, who’s so immersed in understanding character, can fail to see through such an audacious fraud. There’s a degree to which “Rockefeller”‘s ability to take interlocutors’ words and spin new stories to draw them in put me in mind of Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius“; something about not only the construction of new worlds, but the way they come to infect and permeate what we think of as reality. I can’t recommend this book enough. Podcast coming in 2015.
Not pictured: A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park – The first in a four-book series about an alternate earth and a changeling princess who was hidden in our world (speaking of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”). As I mentioned in the previous Paul Park item, I started this series to get a better grasp of Paul’s work, so this is technically For The Podcast. It has some deliberate nods to John Crowley’s Aegypt cycle of books, although I hope not the final volume, which I couldn’t fathom. This one does a good job evoking the alternate world, alluding to its strange history and laws, while bringing us up to speed on a 20-year plot to hide the princess who can be the salvation of Roumania against those nasty Germans. There’s a scene in the afterlife that’s absolutely breathtaking. Podcast coming in 2015.
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather – The last book I finished in 2014. One of my podcast-guests considers it The Great American Novel, so I was expecting a very different book than the one I got. It’s about a pair of Catholic missionaries in the American southwest after the Mexican-American War, and it’s almost a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel. I literally had no idea what to expect from the book, but the title left me thinking it’d be a Whiskey Priest tale, with awful, dissolute people abounding. Instead, it’s a very Catholic novel. At least, I’m hoping that’s why I felt so disconnected from it. It’s a beautiful work, with the landscape serving as a lead character, but I did feel as though its outlook was somehow alien to me. At first, I attributed it to the 1850s SW setting, but one of my favorite novels (The Leopard) is set in 1860s Italy, so that wasn’t it. I think the purity of the two missionaries’ vision of the world (not that it was naive), demonstrates a type of grace that I just don’t feel in my life. Also, I was watching season 3 of Breaking Bad at the same time, and that’s a very different vision of New Mexico right there.
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And that’s it for 2014! At the moment, I’m in the second book of Paul Park’s White Tyger series, as I mentioned, along with Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve got plenty of podcast-related reading for 2015, but I’m also hoping to get to Climates (Andre Maurois), Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, more Stefan Zweig, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things (a re-read), and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man (David Maurer).
Why don’t you go check out the past editions of this writeup?
“In the late 1970s, I wanted to write against the grain, so I wrote about a marriage that lasted a long time, with all the strife and stresses.”
Novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and translator Lynne Sharon Schwartz sat down with me to talk about her newest essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses (Counterpoint), but we talked about a lot more in our hour! Listen in to learn how she and her husband began recording literary readings by authors like James Baldwin, Philip Roth, John Updike, William Styron in the ’60s, and how they’ve re-launched those recordings. We also discuss how second-wave feminism convinced her to pursue a writing career, how her ear for music influences her writing, why she swears by audiobook reader David Case, and how Margaret Atwood once dropped the boom on Norman Mailer. Give it a listen!
“Although I identify with feminism, my literary tastes don’t divide into men and women; it’s the ones who are concerned with language and delight in language, rather than their gender, that I read.”
We also talk about her love of digressive essays, the joys of translation, her travel-anxiety, the difficulty in getting a book of essays published, why W.G. Sebald is one of her favorite authors, and how — kinda like last week’s guest, Caitlin McGurk — she got involved in bringing back lost women writers.
About our Guest
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Her new essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses, was just published by Counterpoint. Her first novel, Rough Strife, was nominated for a National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award. Her other novels include The Writing on the Wall; In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy; Disturbances in the Field; and Leaving Brooklyn (Rediscovery), nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She and her husband Harry have launched Calliope Author Readings, which offers lovers of literature a rare opportunity to hear great 20th century American authors interpreting their own works. Ms. Schwartz has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. Her stories and essays have been reprinted in many anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Essays. She has taught writing and literature at colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in New York City.
Credits: This episode’s music is Gladiolas by Scott Joplin. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Schwartz’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Schwartz by me.
“Claressa Shields was the first boxer who showed me that women can be artists in the ring, like men. It was kind of like the first time I read Virginia Woolf.”
Essayist, boxer, novelist, chef and more, Sarah Deming joins The Virtual Memories Show to talk about yoga’s role as a gateway drug into boxing, winning a Golden Gloves tournament, the joys of watching a great fighter, her literary idols, the miracle of Bernard Hopkins’ longevity, and how she found her soul.
“I really like the people who write about boxing with empathy. There’s a lot of subtly disrespectful boxing writing. I think it’s essentially because of the threat the intellectual feels from the athlete, and I think racism underlies it, too.”
We also talk about the spiteful inspiration for her first novel, the thread connecting boxers and adult film stars, the magic in the mundane, and why it’s almost impossible to write something boring about sex or a fight! Give it a listen! (And check out these wonderful essays Sarah wrote about skydiving and vodka-peddling!)
About our Guest
Sarah Deming is the author of the children’s novel Iris, Messenger (Harcourt, 2007) about the Greek gods in suburbia. Her essays have appeared in the Threepenny Review, the Huffington Post, and WNYC.com. In 2013, she won a Pushcart Prize and was listed as notable in Best American Essays. Sarah has ghostwritten two erotic novels and assisted on ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s memoir Eat and Run. She was a writer/researcher for CNBC’s boxing coverage of the 2012 Olympics. Before becoming a writer, Sarah was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, chef, and yoga teacher. She volunteers as a strength/conditioning coach for young boxers at the Atlas Cops & Kids Gym in Brooklyn and teaches yoga at New York Health and Racquet Club.
Credits: This episode’s music is Brainy by The National. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Deming’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Deming by me.
As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake way to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaid his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.
—John Williams, Stoner
Click on the pic above to embiggen
I started the 2012 edition of Another Year, in the Books with a quote from the great book critic Michael Dirda. I have another one on hand from this year’s crop, but figured I’d lead off with one from the best novel I read in 2013. Still, if you’re pining for some Dirda, here you go:
More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text — this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phase, “at risk.” Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world’s literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.
—Michael Dirda, “Millennial Readings: Dec, 5 1999,” Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
I finished reading 38 books in 2013, although I did read one of them twice. Since this was the year that I really focused on producing a good podcast and bringing in good authors as guests, just about half of those books were ones I read to prep for interviews. That’s not to say they were like homework! In fact, a lot of them opened me up to new areas of thought, and some were simply authors I’d long overlooked. I don’t have any regrets about spending time with those books, nor with the 10 books that were rereads from past years (marked with an (r) in the writeup below, after the authors’ names).
It feel like my life is really the act of reading and rereading.
The only downside to rereading is that it’s time I don’t spend with a new (to me) book. That picture of the “class of 2013″ adds up to about 37 linear inches of books (click here for a larger version on Flickr). The total shelf-space in my library I currently have devoted to books (not including comics and magazines) is about 1250 linear inches. That means this 2013 crop constitutes less than 3% of the total amount of books in my library. The 2012 crop was 51 books, which is just insane.
Now, some of those books are duplicates, like the two translations of Proust, the Library of America collections of Philip Roth, the sentimentally held-onto editions of Orwell’s Essays, Journalism and Letters, the five different editions of The Leopard, and other items that should held indicate that I’m a bit deranged.
But if we knock off, say, 100 linear inches of books from that count, that only gets us up to 3.2% of the current library. Meaning, if I was starting afresh and not bringing new books in, it would take me a little more than 30 years at this pace to work my way through everything.
But of course I’m not starting afresh, and I did just order some new books this morning. I’m also waiting for advance review copies (ARCs) of books from upcoming podcast-guests. So as I think I pointed out in the 2011 edition, my relationship with my library is really my relationship with death.
So I guess I better get to work telling you about the past year’s reading so I can get on with reading next year’s books! (Oh, and go check out this podcast so you can find out my guests’ favorite books from 2013!)
Bleak House – Charles Dickens (r) – I should probably do these write-ups as I finish reading the books. For the life of me, I’m not sure why I began rereading this one. It’s one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read, so I’m glad I returned to it after 20+ years. I read the book’s saddest scene in a Five Guys burger joint and still kinda teared up.
Confusion – Stefan Zweig – I think my Zweig expectations were too high after the great experiences I had with Chess Story and a collection of his shorter fiction in 2012. This was . . . good. Not great. Not keeping me utterly enthralled, but not boring me. It’s about a man who gets sent to university because he’s a wastrel, and becomes a great student, under the thrall of a masterful professor prone to mysterious behavior. The confusion of the title becomes clear to modern readers, but I don’t know how veiled or coded it was back in the 1920s, when Zweig wrote it. As I think about it a little for this writeup, I’m actually warming to it a little, in part because of its contrast with Stoner, which I’ll get to later.
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War – Fred Kaplan – This is the first one I read for a podcast guest, and boy, was it a doozy. Kaplan’s a really good writer on military issues, and he brings a ton of clarity to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the success of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in the latter, its futility in the former, and how the guys behind COIN tried to shake up a U.S. military establishment that — post-Vietnam — wanted no part of this sort of warfare (despite getting immersed in it several times since the end of the Cold War). I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books, but this one was fantastic. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis – I’m not sure why this one didn’t grab me the way it has so darn many readers, but I’m starting to be concerned with the number of university-based novels I’ve been reading in the past year or so. I hesitate to say it was “too British,” but it might belong to a very specific type of British writing that I just don’t appreciate. Could also be the postwar era in which it was written and takes place; between that & the university setting, it’s like an alien environment to me. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more when I was younger, a perverse notion given how so many other books have flowered for me in middle age. Here’s another guy’s perspective.
A Sport and a Pastime – James Salter – I’d heard of Salter a few times over the years, but never tried him out until the publicity wave for his new novel, All That Is. This is another novel that’s almost contemporary and yet requires a recognition of the time & setting, the morals that were in place, etc. The prose itself had some beautiful, Tropic of Cancer-ish passages, although Salter’s main precursor looks to be Hemingway, with whom I’ve never exactly clicked. I enjoyed it enough to give another Salter novel a read later in the year.
Engine Summer – John Crowley – I had heard that this short novel is the second-best book by Crowley, behind his masterpiece, Little, Big, and is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever. I can’t argue with that, although my SF reading peaked during my teenage years. The way-post-apocalyptic setting reminded me a little of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there’s so much more going on in this book, and it’s tied together with an amazing plot device. I’d only read Crowley’s “fantasy” books before this, if that’s what you’d call Little, Big and the AEgypt novels, and now I kinda wish he wrote some more SF.
The Original 1982 – Lori Carson – One of my favorite singer/songwriters wrote her first novel! And I got to interview her about it! The publicity material described it as a cross between Almost Famous and Sliding Doors, and that’s about right. The lead character is a Lori Carson stand-in who had an abortion in 1982 and regrets it enough to reimagine a life in which she kept her baby. The narrative swings from her imagined life to her reality, although not in a disconcerting way. It’s a beautiful little book about the big and little decisions we make and how life sometimes doesn’t pay attention to what we want or do. Listen to our podcast about it!
Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda – A collection of columns from the Washington Post Book World c.1993-1999 by one of our best living book critics. Dirda’s work has always brought me joy and it was honor to sit down with him for an interview in 2012. These are appreciations, humor pieces, and brief essays, and if there’s an elegiac tone about the lost art of close reading, they’re still full of wonder. I oughtta re-interview him in 2014. Listen to our podcast from 2012!
Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson – I love Gibson’s novels, but his nonfiction just isn’t as good. It seems that he finds it tough to straddle the line of non-fiction and personal writing. It’s not his fault, because he’s engaged in a really specific form of novel-writing, for the most part, but it does go to show that some writers don’t make the jump from form to form very well.
The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy – Wallis Wilde-Menozzi – I have to admit to an embarrassing fact; there are 37 individual books on this list, and only 4 of them were written by women. Oh, and I read all 4 of them in preparation for podcast interviews. Man, I gotta diversify, huh? That said, this book was one of the best I read this year. Ms. Wilde-Menozzi’s prose style is gorgeous and the book has wonderful insights from the 40-plus years she’s spent in Italy. She discusses the various cultures and class- and gender-structures she encountered there, but intercuts the quotidian and the political with segments on art and architecture. It was a joy to interview her and I’m awfully glad to have read this one. (I bought extra copies as presents for future pod-guests.) Listen to our podcast about it!
Chess Story – Stefan Zweig (r) – I discovered this in 2012 and just find myself compelled to return to it. It’s an amazing novella about two men playing chess on a steamer from New York to Argentina during WWII. I have also given away many copies of this book, and bought two editions in German when I was in Nuremberg in October. Here’s one of the more beautiful passages:
From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Mohammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?
But keep in mind that it’s not all poetic language; it’s also got a devastating, inexorable plot. And it’s about the tension between imagination and the real, between art and politics. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but this book contains worlds. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it impossible to put down, and you’ll find yourself going back to it at the very least to tease out its storytelling mechanisms.
Moby-Dick – Herman Melville (r) – I re-re-reread this in 2009, but it was the book for this year’s Piraeus seminar at St. John’s College, so I jumped into the Pequod once again. The conversation we had about the book helped illuminate some pieces for me, esp. how the Quaker faith envisions God and how Ahab’s tension between that religion and his hunt for the whale tie the book in knots.
Little, Big – John Crowley (r) – With Bleak House, Moby-Dick, and Little, Big, I guess this was my year for giant-sized re-reads, huh? I set up an interview this year with the author, John Crowley, so I returned to Edgewood and one of the finest American novels. And I was struck by the Americanness of it; it’s timeless and yet it’s also enmeshed in a post-Vietnam mindset of urban destruction and national malaise. Knowing the broad strokes of it, I had a better time immersing myself in the language and imagery, as well as teasing out some of the bits I found inscrutable the first time around. It was almost like having a floor-plan of the Drinkwaters’ house, which remains bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.
The only downside of this whole experience is that, when I met Crowley for the interview, I brought along my wife’s old mass market paperback of Little, Big for him to inscribe. She rereads the novel every year or two, as she’s done since she was a teen. And I either forgot to mention it or he didn’t hear me say it, but he . . . um . . . inscribed it to me instead of Amy. On the plus side, there’s enough room on the inscription line to add her name, so I plan on bringing it up to Readercon next July in hopes that he’ll be able to amend it. Listen to our podcast about it!
Sabbath’s Theater – Philip Roth (r) – I don’t know what prompted me to pick this one up. I hadn’t read it since it came out in 1995, but it was a key work in Roth’s books of the past 15 years and, with Roth’s announcement of his “retirement” from writing, I gave it a go. Now I understand what was calling me back to it; almost all of Roth’s subsequent novels — the American Pastoral books, the Nemesis Quartet, The Dying Animal — all find their roots in this novel. Thread after thread, theme after theme, device after device, all crop up in Sabbath’s Theater. The lead, Mickey Sabbath, is also the last truly immense — I wanna say Shakespearean — character Roth created. Funnily enough, the book came up in two podcasts I recorded this year: both of those writers marveled over Sabbath’s Theater and how it separated Roth from the pack of his contemporaries.
Portrait Inside My Head: Essays – Phillip Lopate – Mr. Lopate was one of those Roth-admiring guests. I’d read a few of his pieces over the years, but when he consented to appear on my podcast, I only had a week or so to prepare. So I read more than 400 pages of his work in the span of 8 days, starting with this recent collection. At the risk of insulting the other fantastic writers and thinkers who’ve appeared on my show, I think Mr. Lopate’s command of his form — the personal essay — is greater than any other living writer’s at his or her form. This one has some great pieces in it; the centerpiece is The Lake of Suffering, Mr. Lopate’s essay about his child’s congenital illness over the first years of her life, but the topics are so varied that you’ll soon find yourself immersed in his erudition, personality and powers of observation. Listen to our podcast!
To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction – Phillip Lopate – Part of the “400 pages in 8 days” run. It’s a discussion of the craft of non-fiction — particularly Mr. Lopate’s branch of it — and it’s another book that I’ve bought multiple copies of, to give to friends and people who want to write. Listen to our podcast!
Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise – David Rothenberg – This was easily the strangest book I read in 2013. One of my guests, Maxim Jakubowski, connected me with David to talk about this book, which springboards from the phenomenon of the 17-year cicada to the notion that mankind gained rhythm from background noise of insects. It’s a fun theory, and Rothenberg brings all sorts of science and art into the conversation, while also exploring human stories that may not exactly prove or disprove his hypothesis, but help build a narrative about the role of man in nature, and nature in man. There’s an accompanying CD, in which Rothenberg accompanies insects like the cicada on his clarinet. Really, it’s a fascinating book that I never would have come across were it not for the podcast. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Oresteia – Aeschylus (tr. Lattimore) (r) – I reread Aeschylus’ revenge trilogy because I was a chapter or two into the next book on this list, which is all about revenge, and figured I should get a little background on the topic from its early days. This time around, I had some questions that I should bring up the next time I’m down at St. John’s. Why didn’t the Eumenides go after Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigenia (before the play begins)? After all, that’s a murder in the blood-line, which is what triggers the Furies’ pursuit of Orestes. And why is the first play named after Agamemnon when he only appears for one scene?
Payback: The Case for Revenge – Thane Rosenbaum – This book was dazzling, but I’m sure some people will find it infuriating. Mr. Rosenbaum, a law professor at Fordham (and also a novelist and essayist), argues that the legal system has eliminated the role of revenge in justice, to the detriment of society. I hesitate to say that it’s a very Hebraic notion of justice, so let’s say it’s an “un-Christian” notion. It bogs down a little on the chapter covering the neurobiology of revenge, but overall it’s an impressive and proscriptive piece of work about a key failing of the modern state. Listen to our podcast about it!
A Month in the Country – JL Carr – One of the tutors at St. John’s recommended this one during our Piraeus weekend on Moby-Dick in June. One Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my library and bought it on my Kindle. Three hours later, I got up and looked around with new eyes. It’s a wonderful, short novel (about 130 pages) about art, religion, class, sexuality and the upheaval of them all following WWI. It takes place in a sleepy town in the north of England, where a London-based art restorer takes month-long job uncovering and restoring a painting in a centuries-old church. There’s a movie of it starring very young Colin Firth and Ken Branagh, but give this one a read.
Checkpoint – Nicholson Baker – David Gates suggested I read this one, after I told him that I believe the worst crime of the Bush era is the amount of crappy art that came out from people who were opposed to the Bush era. It’s a conversation between two men, one of whom plans to kill George Bush. I’m of two minds about this book, neither of them good. First, I don’t think Baker has much of an ear for dialogue, and this is the second book I’ve read of his that consists solely of dialogue. Second, if a major publishing house put out a book consisting of a conversation between two men about killing Barack Obama, it would face a shitstorm of unimaginable proportions. But it was fine for Knopf to publish a fantasy about murdering a sitting president, because he was on the red team? Dude, we live in one messed-up time.
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth (r) – My brother asked me where he should start with Philip Roth. I told him, “Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater, for the short version.” Thane Rosenbaum, author of Payback (above), told me that his Roth really begins with The Ghost Writer. Still, I thought I’d go back to Roth’s breakthrough book and see if it would still make me laugh and cringe. It did.
The Death of Ivan Ilych – Leo Tolstoy (r) – Oh, you know: just wanted to cheer myself up.
Stoner – John Williams – I think it’s the best novel I read this year. It’s certainly the most harrowing. I’d heard about this book and its “lost classic” status for a few years now; I started it after reading an appreciation of it in the New Yorker by Tim Kreider. (I’d bought it a few months earlier at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans.) Kreider refers to Stoner as the anti-Gatsby, and I think that’s dead-on. It tells the story of an English lit professor in Missouri, his humble beginnings, his frustrations in his profession and his marriage, and the few brief, magical moments of his life. All told, it chronicles a forgotten, forgettable life in beautiful but plain prose. I suppose I should compare it to the other university books I read this year, Lucky Jim and Confusion. There’s little overlap with Zweig’s book, but it does make an interesting contrast with Amis’ Lucky Jim, both in terms of being an Unlucky Stoner and in the way in which its very prose styles and depth of feeling form a midwestern contrast to Amis’ ‘Londonness.’ Please give this book a read but keep in mind that it’s almost unremittingly sad and frustrating. And please ignore this idiot.
A Month in the Country – JL Carr (r) – Well, a week or so after I read this the first time, I got a notice that the Annapolis chapter of the St. John’s Alumni Association would be discussing this book during a weekend that I was going to be down in Bethesda, MD. So I gave it a re-read and attended the conversation. The downside was that this session took place during the morning of Yom Kippur, so I was fasting, light-headed and thick-tongued. Still, it was good to talk with some Johnnies about it; I miss book-conversation more than any other aspect of my college/grad-school years. Well, except for the basketball and the girls.
Vineland – Thomas Pynchon (r) – Don’t ask me why. It was just because Pynchon’s new novel was coming out soon, and I had a feeling that it might have some similarities to Vineland, which I detested the first time I read it. (Note: not only do I remember the circumstances of buying that books — I was in a car with my old man in Ridgewood, NJ, saw it in a window display in the B. Dalton, told him to pull over and ran in to buy it — I also remember the funny dream I had about it before it came out: the author bio on the back cover-flap read, “Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Slow Learner,” but the author photo was — get this — of an empty room!) I got more out of it this time, insofar as I came into it with a little more perspective on how the Reagan years were perceived, especially by Californians. It’s still not a good novel, but I can slot it more easily into Pynchon’s body of work and, in my 40s, I can cut a lot more slack for authors than I could when I was 19.
The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran – Hooman Majd – I had never given much thought to what day-to-day life in Iran is like, so this book was a revelation. I read it in advance of an interview with the author, an Iranian-American journalist who chronicles a year of living in Iran with his (very American) wife and their 8-month-old child. It put me in mind of 1984 in several ways. Beyond the obvious perspective of living in a surveillance state, there are also all the little ways in which western sanctions against Iran affect its populace. I always felt that Orwell’s depictions of crappy gin and subpar cigarettes in Airstrip One are at least as compelling as his depictions of torture at the end of his book. Majd also includes a harrowing section in which a friend describes his time in Evin prison after the 2009 elections, a sort of Room 101 but with a glimmer of hope. It’s a fascinating book, both in its humanization of Iran’s people, but also in the implication that the middle-eastern country that has the most in common with Iran just might be Israel. Listen to our podcast about it!
Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir – Bruce Jay Friedman – I interviewed the great cartoonist and artist Drew Friedman for the podcast, and mentioned that I’d love to record one with his dad sometime. He was pessimistic, but I figured I’d start reading up on the guy, just in case. My only experiences with Bruce Jay Friedman were his nonfiction and his cameo in my favorite unwatched Woody Allen movie, Another Woman, so I dived into this 2011 memoir. It’s a hoot, chronicling BJF’s literary development, his stint in the USAF, his magazine-writing/editing career, his leap into the freelance world, his adventures in playwriting, his stints in Hollywood, his evenings at Elaine’s, his friendship with Mario Puzo, and more. The book barely discusses his family life and his kids, but that’s not the subject of it, I guess (or that’s his way of not dealing with his parenting skills). I was kinda thrilled to find out that BJF is a big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a chance to record a podcast sometime. (I know: reading someone’s memoir without actually reading his work is similar to the time I read Stephen King’s On Writing without having read any of his fiction. I’m weird.)
The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning – Peter Trachtenberg – I once joked that the Arts section of the New York Sun was composed by the Tyler Durden of my unknowingly insomniac self. Almost every day that section featured articles that seemed to be written just for me. Which may be why that paper went under. I had a similar vibe reading The Book of Calamities to prep for a podcast with the author. In his discussion of suffering and what it means, Trachtenberg covers ground that I would have gravitated to: Gilgamesh, Rwanda, the Book of Job, the Oresteia, the contextualizing of 9/11, the use of suffering as history, and more.The subject matter can make it a hard book, but I think it’s pretty worthwhile. Listen to our podcast about it!
Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons – Peter Trachtenberg – Okay, this was a lot tougher of a book, even though it’s briefer and it’s about love instead of suffering. He takes the occasion of a lost cat and the kindasorta disintegration of his marriage to explore ideas of love, the workings — and misworkings — of memory, and . . . well . . . our relationship to cats. It’s also about the nature of writing non-fiction, a topic I find pretty interesting. Some of it delves deeply enough into domestic life that I felt a bit uncomfortable/intrusive, but that was the author’s choice, so hey. These two Trachtenberg books fit well together, and he’s another author I discovered through the network effect of the podcast. In this case, when I went up to VT to interview David Gates at Bennington’s low-residency MFA program, he was kind enough to show me around and introduce me to a few other writer-professors in the program, including Trachtenberg, Lopate, and a few others I hope to interview in 2014. Listen to our podcast about it!
Everyman – Philip Roth (r) – I read this every year or so. It’s about an old Jew who dies, and how his life has been defined to a large extent by ailments. It’s a very brief book, one that Roth considers part of his Nemesis Quartet. In some respects, it’s a muted version of Sabbath’s Theater, but its brevity doesn’t make it less effective.
The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion – Virginia Postrel – Another podcast-related book, but I read and enjoyed Ms. Postrel’s two previous books — The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style — so it’s not like I would’ve skipped this one. It’s a gorgeous piece of work about the history and effects of glamour. That may sound like a lightweight topic, but Ms. Postrel shows how it warrants seriousness. She avoids the easy out of saying, “Being susceptible to glamour is a sign of weakness,” and instead uses the phenomenon to explore what it means to be human and how (sometimes) illusions help us discover a deeper reality. Did that sound cliche or trite? I apologize. It’s a good, visually stunning book with lots of good insights into glamour and human behavior. Listen to our podcast about it!
The Fifty-First State– Lisa Borders – Here’s what I said about it in the intro to our podcast conversation:
It takes place in the southern farmland of New Jersey, where a 17-year-old kid’s parents have just died in an awful car wreck. His half-sister, who’s about 20 years older and an artsy photographer in New York City, has to move back to her hometown to take care of him through his last year of high school. That’s a kind of simple pitch, but it’s a lovely novel. It’s more emotionally real than most contemporary fiction I’ve read, really getting into how grief can warp our behavior. Lisa also does a great job of portraying both what it’s like to be a 17-year-old bundle of hormones in a sleepy farm town, and to be in your mid-thirties and really not happy with having to leave the big city, even if your life there wasn’t exactly a barrel of monkeys. What I’m saying is, you should give this one a read.
The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism – Daniel Goldhagen – I read this as prep for a podcast, but Mr. Goldhagen had to postpone, so I’m hoping to sit down with him and talk about antisemitism sometime in 2014. It’s not a conversation I’m looking forward to, exactly. Goldhagen paints a very bleak picture, drawing on the history and roots of antisemitism and its newest, global incarnation. He cites polls where countries that have virtually no Jews whatsoever (like China) nonetheless answer that Jews have too much power in their country. I was cheered that he supported one of my pet theories about the resurgence of antisemitism among white Europeans: a sense of shame over how they couldn’t wait to expel Jews from their countries during the Nazi era transforms into a form of resentment that is equally virulent against Jews. As in, the living Jews, both in Israel and in these countries, are a reminder of how awful their own people behaved during the war, and they take it out as rage against Jews, as if to imply that the Jews somehow deserved that awful treatment. Anyway, if you really wanna feel depressed for the future of Jews in this world, give this one a read.
Solo Faces – James Salter – More Hemingwayesque prose from James Salter, this time about mountain climbing. A past pod-guest told me how much he felt this book captured the feeling of climbing; I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never climbed more than a 20–foot face in the woods near my home. This book contains one of the most savagely manly psychotherapy sessions ever. Its climax was so over the top that I felt uncomfortable about even laughing a little to defuse it.
Getting Personal: Selected Essays – Phillip Lopate – I’d begun this broad collection of Mr. Lopate’s essays during the buildup to our interview, but didn’t finish it until a few months later. If you’d like to get started reading his personal essays, this is a perfect place to start. As I mentioned earlier, he’s a master of this form. I was in awe of his control of language, tone, pacing, characterization, and more. Nowadays, when everyone has a “book of essays” that consists of little more than embarrassing stories from adolescence, it’s refreshing to see how wonderful this form can be. Listen to our podcast!
Barracuda in the Attic – Kipp Friedman – This is a new memoir from a son of Bruce Jay Friedman. It forms a nice companion to Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir, in that it actually covers the relationship of BJF to his family. You don’t have to know much about the family history to enjoy it; the stories are pretty self-contained and relate a youngest-son’s perspective on a wacky family dynamic. Kipp’s dad and two brothers (Drew and Josh Alan Friedman) each make lovely contributions to the book. Listen to our podcast about it!
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin – The author & I overlapped at college, though we don’t remember each other. A mutual friend did, and suggested I interview Brett for the show. I picked up a copy of his book at our local library and devoured it in two days. It’s a really insightful book about the recent golden age of TV drama, and the writer-creators who were at its core. The Difficult Men are both the male leads — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and others — and the aforementioned writer-creators — David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, Matthew Wiener, and others — and Brett does a great job of depicting the highs and lows of the writers’ rooms for these shows, how they managed to get on the air, how the viewing public approached them, and why we may not be in such a golden age now. If you dig those great TV shows of the past decade-plus, you need to read this one. Our podcast is coming up soon, so check the archives page after January 7.
The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman – Bruce Jay Friedman – And here’s where the year ends. I started reading some of BJF’s stories so I’d get more of a flavor of his writing, in case an interview came together. Within 60 or 70 pages, I realized that this was the sort of writing I wanted to pattern my own fiction after. It was somewhere in the middle of “Detroit Abe,” the short story that would later become the movie Doctor Detroit, that it all clicked for me. I finally understood why my lyric flights always crashed, and my mystical expositions fizzled. I finally found the writer who could tell funny, witty, engaging stories about men (Jews and gentiles) without having to draw a literary-cosmic conclusion about the universe. Now I just wish I was writing 30 or 40 years ago, when there was a market for this stuff. This past weekend, I began a new story and struggled like crazy with the first page of it. I gave up, frustrated. That night, I began reading a BJF story from this book, realized exactly what my opening line should be and why the previous iterations didn’t work, and went back downstairs to begin writing. If I didn’t sideline myself by writing this giant mess, I’m sure I’d have finished the story by now!
But seriously, I’m so glad to have made this discovery.
And that’s it for 2013’s books! According to my Kindle, I’m around 10% of the way into Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which I’d been meaning to start for a while. I also have a few books in from upcoming pod-guests, but I’m hoping to balance that with more of what’s already in my library. I’d like to read the rest of Sebald’s novels, Salter’s Light Years, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge , Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Dante’s Inferno (next June’s Piraeus book), Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and . . . but that’s already looking too ambitious, right?
Sigh. Seeya in 2014!