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Another Year, In the Books: 2013

Another Year, in the books: 2013 edition

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

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, then here he is:

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 HouseCharles 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.

ConfusionStefan 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 WarFred 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 JimKingsley 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 PastimeJames 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 SummerJohn 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 1982Lori 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 EntertainmentsMichael 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 FlavorWilliam 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 ItalyWallis 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 StoryStefan 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-DickHerman 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, BigJohn 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 TheaterPhilip 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: EssaysPhillip 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 NonfictionPhillip 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 NoiseDavid 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 OresteiaAeschylus (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 RevengeThane 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 CountryJL 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.

CheckpointNicholson BakerDavid 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 ComplaintPhilip 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 IlychLeo Tolstoy (r) – Oh, you know: just wanted to cheer myself up.

StonerJohn 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 CountryJL 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.

VinelandThomas 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 IranHooman 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 MemoirBruce 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 MeaningPeter 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 PersonsPeter 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!

EverymanPhilip 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 PersuasionVirginia 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.

Listen to our podcast about it!

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global AntisemitismDaniel 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 FacesJames 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 EssaysPhillip 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 AtticKipp 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 BadBrett 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 FriedmanBruce 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!

Another Year, In The Books

The year began with a novel about a dying newspaper and (just about) ended with a novel about the eternal sleaziness of newspapers.

According to the list of All The Books I’ve Read, I finished 32 books in 2011; several were re-reads, one was a Kindle Single, one was a play and another was a novella. I’ve decided that my year-end post should be a look back at those books, what I made of them, how I came across them, and any other recollections or observations I can make about ‘em.

First, I oughtta note that 32 books isn’t that much. I mean, all told, the Great List shows that I’ve finished around 600 books since I began keeping the list in the fall of 1989, when I started college. That puts me a little above the “average” of 27 books a year, and it sure makes me regret that 2-year run in 1997-98 when I couldn’t finished a goddamned thing. But with math like this, even if I up the pace to an even 30 books a year, there’s still no chance I’ll ever work my way through my library.

Which is why I’m glad I came across this page in Kevin Huizenga’s latest issue of Ganges last week; shows I’m not alone in thinking about The Math:

 

The year’s big reading project, as I wrote about earlier, was Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time. I’d rather not write about those books individually in this post, since I’m still a bit muddled about the first half of the series. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Powell’s writing, and I think the three WWII novels (books 7-9), plus their immediate successor (Books Do Furnish a Room), mark the high point of the cycle. But, like I said, I’m going to leave off writing about them, except in terms of where they fall in sequence, and focus on the other 20 books for this post.

Also, because of my prose-bias, I won’t go into the comics that I read over the year. However, there’s one comic I read in 2011 that trumps this entire list: Jaime Hernandez’s conclusion to The Love Bunglers, in Love & Rockets #4. I wrote about this a little during my heart scare in October, and I want to reiterate: what Jaime achieves by the end of that comic, capping off 30 years of stories of Maggie and her world, is a perfect piece of art.

On with the show:

The Imperfectionists – The year began with Tom Rachman’s 2010 novel about a dying, Rome-based newspaper patterned after the International Herald Tribune. Each chapter follows a different character in or around the paper, and it does a great job of delineating the various occupations and beats of that workplace. However, the only people I knew who’d appreciate that backdrop would also be terribly depressed by the newspaper’s demise, so I didn’t pass it on to anyone. I think it was recommended via Amazon, and the Kindle edition was only $5.00, so hey.

Shortly after finishing that book, I turned 40. I also began A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Powell’s series. I read one each month, so just mentally slot those in between the other titles listed here. I’ll put the full list & chronology at the end of the post.

The Age of Innocence – I decided to read this after New York magazine ran a “Greatest New York Ever” feature, and Sam Anderson selected Wharton’s book as the greatest New York novel. I was intrigued and gave it a shot (free on my Kindle). I had no idea Wharton was this good. Scorsese’s decision to adapt it made perfect sense to me, although I couldn’t bear more than 10 minutes of his adaptation, since it relied so heavily on voice-over of Wharton’s prose, rather than, y’know, adapting it into a visual medium.

Anyway, I loved it, thought it did a wonderful job working through the social mores of post-Civil War New York, and felt it would’ve been more awesome if Archer, at that pivotal moment, went hardcore, killed May and went on the lam with Countess Olenska in Europe. But then the book would’ve had a much different reputation. I got at least one other person to read this, and she enjoyed the heck out of it, too.

1959: The Year Everything Changed – I met the author, Fred Kaplan, at a book party in NYC, and told him how much I enjoyed his columns on Slate. I mentioned that I hadn’t read his 1959 book yet, and he was much less angry about that than Greill Marcus was when I once told him that I hadn’t finished reading Lipstick Traces. (I still haven’t.) After that evening, I picked up his book on the Kindle. I enjoyed his version of that history, even if it did trick me into giving On The Road another shot. (It still sucks.)

A lot of this literary year was spent trying to get out of my own historical moment. The Powell books, of course, cover a chunk of the 20th century, and Kaplan tries to get at the ways in which 1959 shaped who we became in the succeeding decades.

Arcadia – The next couple of books play fast and loose with the notion of time and history. In March, I read Tom Stoppard’s play for the bazillionth time. This reading was preparation for seeing it performed on Broadway (which I wrote about here). It’s such a beautifully constructed work, I can’t begin to do it justice.

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis’ story of a Nazi war criminal who doesn’t realize that his life is unspooling backwards. It’s narrated by a nascent consciousness in the head of a man who is coming to life and being delivered to his house by an ambulance. It’s a sick experiment in how to write about atrocities and innocence, and Amis, of course, is up to the job. It’s a difficult feat, clueing the reader into what’s going on while the narrator itself has no idea. I can’t say I recommend it, but it kept me enthralled. I assume he wrote it after someone offhandedly remarked that you can’t write in a sympathetic voice about a doctor who worked the concentration camps.

(I once passed on Amis’ London Fields to a coworker who generally likes my pass-alongs. She gave it back to me unfinished and said that she hated all the characters and didn’t want to read about them anymore. I can understand that entirely. I think I’m going to read Amis’ Money sometime in 2012, and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s ever had any likeable characters.)

Slaughterhouse-Five – I figured Time’s Arrow‘s not-so-Bloomian precursor was Vonnegut’s novel about the bombing of Dresden, in which the reality of the war is so horrible that the lead character retreats into nonlinear time and a science-fiction world of alien abductions. I hadn’t read this in years, and didn’t enjoy it too much, this time around. I’m betting it falls into my category of Lowest College Denominator.

The Leopard – Then I read the book that I would trade all the other books on this list for. I bought Lampedusa’s novel around 10 years ago on God knows who’s recommendation. It was the reverse of a wine cellar; while the book stayed the same, I matured enough to read it. I read a lovely recommendation of Lampedusa’s work in The Wall Street Journal and decided it was time to give it a shot. When I finished the novel, after wiping away some tears, I thought, “I’m so glad I got to read this book before I died.” Perhaps I’m just mistaking literary achievement to my growing sensitivity to stories of men watching their lives pass by, but I think The Leopard has some eternal qualities to it. I reread it 3 months later and keep it on my nightstand as a fallback for when I’m not interested in reading my current book.

It’s “about” a prince in Palermo in the 1860s, when Italy is in the process of unification and the merchant class is on the rise. The prince understands that the nobility’s days are numbered, but must negotiate his family’s wellbeing as long as he can, while he comes to grips with the younger generation’s ascent. And he’s SO so human. Lampedusa evokes this entire world, with its nobility, its clergy, its militia, its tradesman, its upstarts, its cosmos. I hope you get to read it sometime.

Here’s what I read from it last night, before turning in:

Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike brow, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.

A River Runs Through It – Maybe I spoke too soon about trading all the other books for The Leopard. I’d probably keep Arcadia and I think I’d also keep this one. This is another countless reread for me. I don’t remember why I decided to read it this past summer. It had just been made available on the Kindle, so perhaps that prompted it. More likely, I wanted to read something beautiful and familiar and see if it, too, affected me differently at 40.

(I don’t think any book changed for me so dramatically as my 2010 reread of the Iliad. It’s a little embarrassing that it took me four journeys to Troy before I finally developed a sympathy/understanding for Achilles, but there it is. This time around, I was transfixed by that notion of the epic hero, caught in the fate of being the center of the poem, giving up family, future and love to become the world’s first great literary subject. I wish I’d kept up with my idea of writing about Achilles & the Iliad throughout the past year, but I always let myself get sidetracked. Like now.)

Weirdly, Maclean’s novella about fly-fishing and grace didn’t change too much for me this time around. In some respects, it’s the book that helped shepherd me along into my “boring old fart” mode. Which isn’t to say that it’s a boring book; rather, its assuredness of voice and lovely-yet-stark depictions of the lives of the two brothers and their family helped me appreciate silence and the absence of literary pyrotechnics.

(It also helped me form some sorta background for trying to understand Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Emphasis on “trying”.)

Nemesis – A short Philip Roth novel about a polio outbreak in Newark in the 1940s. Roth belatedly tied this one to his recent short books and called them The Nemesis Quartet. I’m a huge mark for the first book in that run (which we’ll get to shortly), but the other 3 all feel like sketches more than real novels. But then, Roth’s nearly 80 and has achieved enough over the years that he’s earned the right to perform some minor variations.

What’s most interesting about this one is the narrator, who starts off as a first-plural “we,” but eventually shows up and plays a role in unspooling the later aspects of the tale. He also undercuts a lot of the simplistic thinking of the earlier pages, in a conscious reflection of the lead character’s mental limitations. It’s a neat trick, demolishing the lead’s earnestness and self-seriousness like that.

Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed – I read this memoir of Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson in one day. It was the first time I’ve read a book that quickly in years, and sure, it wasn’t Proust, but it was pretty fascinating. I’ve become interested in menswear in the last year or two, and one of the blogs I follows recommended this one. Anderson does a great job of conjuring up his apprentice days, while lamenting the lack of training in the contemporary scene. The best parts, as with many of the UK memoirs and novels I read this past year, involved the strange characters he worked with, and the oddball initiations he underwent.

One of my resolutions for 2012 is to have some shirts made for me by a tailor. I have the cash to do this, but I also have a bit of anxiety about sitting down and talking about fabrics, cuts and styles with someone who knows a bazillion times more about them than I do. Of course, that’s preferable to working with a tailor who doesn’t know that stuff better than I do, but I have Novice’s Worry. I’ll tell you how it works out.

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive – I wrote about this one earlier in the year, and my thoughts about it haven’t changed, so just check out that post. As noted there, I discovered it via an author interview on the Monocle Weekly Podcast. Sadly, Monocle changed its format a few months ago, as part of a move to 24/7 audio broadcasting, and I found the weekly podcast unlistenable. I’ll try to get back to it next year, since it did turn me on to some neat books and music, including the incomparable sound of W&Whale.

Everyman – Last summer, the dad of one of my best friends died suddenly, so I felt the need to return to this short Philip Roth novel about an old Jew and his illnesses. I wrote about it pretty extensively in my Man Out Of Time piece about my favorite books from the previous decade. I fear I’ll return to this one again and again, as death grows in stature around me. I only have it on my Kindle, but should probably get a print copy. You know, for the permanence.

Zero History – I saved William Gibson’s oddball new novel for my first trip to his stomping grounds in Vancouver. It was enjoyable enough, but seemed to eschew any real plot or stakes until maybe 25% from the end. It’s gotta be tough to integrate a plot with the sorts of observations and atmospheres that Gibson’s so good at making/evoking, but this one really felt like he forgot about the plot until he came up with a big synchronized set piece of a caper, then perfunctorily snapped it into place. Vancouver sure was pretty.

The Junket – This was a Kindle Single, a short e-only piece. It was written by Mike Albo, who co-wrote The Underminer, a kinda black comedy novel I read a few years back. This single was hyped by The Awl, a blog I follow, so I gave it a shot. In it, Albo chronicles the bizarre circumstances by which he was fired from the New York Times, where he was a freelancer writing the Critical Shopper column. The incident highlighted the Times’ self-serving, contradictory, disposable treatment of freelancers, and Albo’s relative poverty reminds me that I made a good decision to stick with trade magazine editing all these years.

I like the idea of Kindle Singles, in terms of being able to publish long-form (but not book-length) work at a lower price point. Non-fiction books often feel to me as though they’re padded to reach a certain page count, so I’m in favor of writers knowing when to stop.

The Leopard – I read it again, 3 months later. Still on my night-stand.

The Finkler Question – I’m dismissive of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with another reason for this book to have won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post about the circumstances in which I bought this one for my mom. It was only $5 on the Kindle, so I got it for myself. I know I’ve told people — and you, dear reader — on numerous occasions that “life’s too short for crappy novels,” but I really did think this was going to improve. It’s sad that I was so wrong.

Wise Blood – Who knew that droll comic Norm MacDonald and St. John’s College would have an overlap? Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that Norm is a voracious reader who holds contemporary fiction in even greater disdain than I do. For the book club that he hosts in the 140-character medium, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood was a recent selection. I’d never read her, and didn’t think I’d have time to read that one before the club started its discussion. Still, I filed her away with hopes of getting to her sometime in 2012.

Then I got a mailer from St. John’s about next year’s Piraeus continuing education program. Here’s the opening page:

The ancient port of Athens, the Piraeus, is a lively juncture of departures and homecomings. As in the days of Socrates, it represents the pulse-point of the community. A reunion, a chance encounter, a new beginning, an opportunity to reinvent one’s self — all these possibilities exist at the Piraeus.

Join Us.

St. John’s College, in cooperation with the Alumni Association, is pleased to offer Piraeus 2012, a continuing education program for alumni. We invite your participation, and we strive to awaken the curiosity that stirred Socrate to venture down to that port and led to journeys that shape our thoughts and lives today.

Among this year’s offerings? A four-day course in Annapolis on Wise Blood and six of O’Connor’s short stories, led by two of my favorite tutors (no professors at SJC) from the school. The brochure read

Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic stories and novels have the power, character, and plot of Greek tragedy. In Wise Blood, her first novel, and these six stories, which are poignant, often hilarious, and always disturbing, her characters have life-changing experiences that raise profound questions about grace, trust and the nature of the good. O’Connor is sensitive to the appearance of spirit in the world as she pursues the meaning of life, love, and destiny. [And serial commas.] Join us in reading this singular writer, as she searches the recesses of the human heart.

Yes, that’s my idea of a great mini-vacation. (There’s also a six-day course in Santa Fe in August on Thucydides, but I doubt I could get away long enough for that.) I stopped at that new & used bookstore where bought The Finkler Question and ordered the Library of America hardcover of The Works of Flannery O’Connor. I’m trying to be nice to that store and order a book every so often. I see it like this: if they’re brave/stupid enough to open a bookstore in this retail environment (it recently celebrated its first anniversary), then they deserve some sorta patronage from me.

That said, it’s like shopping with one hand tied behind my back, compared to using Amazon. I get to pay full price, wait several days for the book to arrive at the shop, and then drive 15 miles each way to pick it up.

So what did I make of Wise Blood? Well, I liked it more than Norm did, and think it was a much more accurate approach to life-with-religiosity-and-without-God than The Finkler Question. Can’t wait to talk about it next May/June!

This took me into December. After I finished the last book in the Dance, I thought I’d take it easy for the rest of the year. Then Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died, and I got drawn right back into devouring books.

Scoop – Hitchens had praised Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel of muckraking London tabloids several times, so I gave this a read shortly after CH’s death. I’ve long regretted that I had no journalistic background before I became an editor. I think it would’ve helped my news/feature writing immeasurably, instead of the nondescript style I’ve employed for years. It probably also would’ve helped me to ask the right/tough questions during interviews. But here I am, a 17-year vet of the trade rag biz, so I must be doing something right.

In Waugh’s book, a “country life” columnist who lives in quiet seclusion (in a typically demented old money mansion) accidentally gets sent on assignment to darkest Africa to cover a civil war. When I write “darkest Africa,” I mean that Waugh comes off racist as fuck. If you can see past that, it’s a very funny novel, and Hitchens maintained that the behavior of reporters hadn’t changed in the decades since Scoop was published. Given the phone-hacking scandals embroiling Murdoch’s newspapers, we can see that the behavior just adapted for new technologies.

The Trial – I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of Kafka’s novels before this, just some of his shorter stuff. I cribbed some of my knowledge of his work from Introducing Kafka, a primer written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. Crumb’s adaptations of Kafka were gorgeous, but Mairowitz’s interpretations were a bit . . . pedestrian, I think.

I was prompted to start The Trial after I read this quote from Vaclav Havel in a New Yorker writeup:

“I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks,” he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. “Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.”

As someone who’s always considered himself a fraud and is so convinced that he’s going to be ground down by larger forces that he’s saved them the trouble by grinding himself down, I appreciated Havel’s position. What I didn’t get from past readings of shorter Kafka (A Hunger Artist, The Metamorphosis, et al.) was the sheer humor of his writing. Midway through The Trial, I thought, “Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays make so much more sense now.”

Sure, The Trial is an “unfinished” novel, just like The Castle, but their very nature shows that no conclusion is possible. These all-encompassing bureaucracies perpetuate an unknowable notion of power, because knowledge would strip it of its authority. So, instead of rooting for a persecuted character to triumph, the reader is left to laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly bizarre tableaux in which he’s placed.

Hitch-22 – Which brings us to the end of the of the year. I’m glad I wrapped up with this one. Hitchens’ memoir came out shortly before he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would lead to his death. Like many of the other books I read this year (including Keith Richards’ memoirs, which I have to get back to), it details post-war British life. Given that my mom was born in London during the war, I suppose there’s something meaningful about my interest in this period.

The book is written more loosely than Hitchens’ columns and book reviews. There’s more personal flair, more impression, more “I guess you had to be there”, less argumentation and less circumspection to the prose. It’s a refreshing style for the man who’s final essay collection is entitled Arguably.

The exception is the Iraq chapter, in which he brings his journalistic instincts to bear, likely to try to counter the impression that he was wrong about the invasion. He admits to not even thinking that the logistics of the post-war planning parameters, implications and possibilities would be so bungled by the Bush administration, and stands by his notion that it was correct to take Saddam Hussein out of power.

What I wonder about, and what I don’t think he wanted to address, was whether it would have been possible for this to be done “cleanly.” Just as he came around to understand that Stalinism was not an accident but a necessary result of Communism, is it true that any “regime change” operation by an outside power is necessarily going to become a godawful mess like we have in Iraq and Afghanistan? (The latter being more justifiable, since there wasn’t a real regime to change anyway.) Was it in the nature of Hitchens’ Trotskyism to believe in the viability of “imperialism for democracy”? I wish he’d have gone into this, because I do believe that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t happen without people seeing Hussein dragged out of a spider-hole and brought to “justice.” (Hitch-22 was written before aforementioned “Arab Spring,” of course.) But I also believe that other dictators saw that and doubled down on their own repressive forces, to try to keep such a thing from ever happening to them.

ANYWAY: outside of that chapter, I thought the book was fantastic. I enjoyed the literary scenesterism, the parlor games with Amis, Rushdie, Fenton and the like. The chapter about his late (1988) discovery of his Jewish roots was fascinating, inasmuch as he found himself somehow adopting Jewishness as a tenacious culture while remaining atheist and contending that Israel is essentially an outlaw state. (Which returns to those issues of religiosity, God/godlessness, and ethics, via Wise Blood and The Finkler Question, but in yet another direction.) I’m simplifying, but he doesn’t exactly get into the question of where Jews were supposed to go after the war. Except for the part about how Jews were co-opted into the ethnic cleansing practices of post-war Poland.

I found myself quite sad by the time I finished Hitch-22 (and this year), rent by the fragility of life, the voices that are stilled, the books left unwritten, the books left unread. I haven’t made any firm reading plans for 2012, certainly not on the scale of that Powell project, but I’m confident I’ll come up with something.

I hope you enjoyed this rambling recap, dear reader. I have a mild interest in other fields (sports, menswear, technology) but really, the only question I can ask to show that I care is, “What are you reading?”

How I Misspent My Summer Vacation, 2011 Edition: Day 4

Sunday, Aug. 14: Lavender gin and Rainxiety

Where was I? Oh, yeah: Hurricane Irene preparation, limping dog, windstorm, multi-day power outage, crazy work deadline, Labor Day weekend. So that puts us back in Vancouver, specifically the Metropolitan Hotel.

I mentioned in our last installment that I had done no research into Vancouver before the trip. So, in addition to not knowing about the French-Canadian vibe, I also didn’t reailze that our hotel was in a neighborhood similar to the high-end boutique region of midtown Manhattan. We weren’t there to shop, since we live about 30 miles from NYC, and, well . . .

As I mentioned in my last “Who Am I?” post, I started a shopping ban in early August. I decided to see how low my credit card bill would get if I went one month without purchasing books, comics, music, liquor-store gin, electronics or menswear. I was doing just fine for the first 10 days, but being in a hotel directly across from Vancouver’s high-end shopping mall was definitely a rehab-temptation moment for me. At one point on Monday, I found myself “just browsing” in the Harry Rosen store, where a Brunello Cuccinelli cashmere jacket just threw itself at me. But I managed to keep my virtue and my money.

You’ll note that I didn’t include “Tim Hortons” on that no-shopping list. I’m not crazy, after all. I got dressed Sunday morning and lit out for Timmy’s. I saw one a block and a half away on the drive in last night, and asked the doorman of the hotel if that was the closest one.

“If you’re looking for coffee, we have a Starbucks next to the hotel,” he said.

“Man, the last thing I want is Starbucks,” I told him. He confirmed that the Tim’s on Dunsmuir is the closest. I grabbed coffees for us and a maple dip donut for myself.

The morning was pretty lazy. Amy tooled around on her iPad (hotel wifi) while I finished The Soldier’s Art, which takes place during WWII. I was bummed by the sudden ending, the news that a character died during a reconnaisance flight in which he was reporting on enemy camouflage. But I was also glad to have completed this month’s Dance to the Music of Time installment, because it meant I could get started on Zero History, William Gibson’s new novel.

Gibson lives in Vancouver, so I thought it would be nice to wait on that book until I was in the city. Also, I waited for the price of the Kindle version to drop to $9.99, which it did around the same time that the paperback version came out. As I began reading, I discovered that the Macguffin — he’s moved beyond Macguffins, actually, but it’s as close a term as I’m gonna employ to describe the story — was a design for camouflage clothing. I bet I’m the only person ever to transition from Barnby’s death in the name of camouflage to Gibson’s 21st century exploration of how camo and military style inform streetwear. I don’t expect to win any sort of prize for this.

By late morning, Amy had come up with a good restaurant for brunch. The sky was overcast the weather forecast had called for cool temps and some train, so we dressed appropriately and got walkin’. Here’s a set of pix from the walk, or you can click through this guy:

Escape... from Vancouver!

In case I haven’t made this point enough, let me note that I like walking around in cities. I dig seeing neighborhoods, exploring stores, and picking up little place-memories.

For a long time, I would set my maxi-capacity iPod to shuffle and put in my earbuds when meandering around unfamiliar cities during business trips. I’d stroll through neighborhoods further and further from my hotels, with a few destinations in a loose plan. I was pretty good at identifying bad areas (and bad times to walk through otherwise okay areas) and never got mugged or otherwise messed with during my travels.

I liked the notion of having random songs in my head while I explored. That way, when one of those tunes popped up again years later, I’d be transported back to that moment in Madrid, in Belfast, in San Antonio, in Nelson, in Paris, like a geo-aural landscape. The music is like a time-bomb (or is it a land-mine, or an ICBM?).

Years ago, I drove from San Francisco to San Diego with a single Mad Mix CD to keep me company for 2-plus days. I was in a convertible, so there were plenty of stretches in which I couldn’t hear anything over the wind, but I still came to know that CD inside-out by the time I rolled into my friends’ place in South Park.

IPod tourism is a practice I’ve abandoned in the last couple of years. Maybe it’s my discomfort from those earbuds, my incipient deafness, my fear that I’ll get taken unawares by thugs. Maybe it’s my desire to hear the sounds of cities themselves, rather than my semi-engineered soundtracks.

So Amy & I walked down Howe St. toward Davie. My iPhone’s GPS-based Maps app worked just fine, although it wouldn’t be able to provide directions without getting onto the Canadian data-network, at which point I’d have gotten charged ridiculous fees. As we left the hotel, I discovered that the Vancouver Art Gallery was on the next block, and that it was hosting an exhibition on surrealism. I’m not a huge fan, but I thought it’d be nice to check the exhibit out on Monday.

We had a pleasant Sunday stroll down to the Provence Marinaside. The line for tables was long, so we sat at the bar. A Blue Jays game was on the TV in the corner, drawing my attention occasionally. An on-screen graphic noted that the Mariners’ game would be on next. I wondered which team was the “local” one: nearby Seattle or 2,600-miles-away Toronto. The latter had the advantage of being the “national team,” since the Expos had gone away. I didn’t bother asking anyone about it.

Our waiters/bartenders were off-Broadway versions of Robert Pattinson and Michael Fassbender. I ordered an amazing ham-and-gruyere omelet and then noticed a strangely labeled bottle of gin behind the bar. I had no idea what it was, and asked Team Edward if I could see it. It had a hand-scrawled label describing a lavender gin. I asked him to open it so I could give it a waft. He poured me a small glass instead, so I checked out the bouquet and ordered a G&T with it. Amy took the straight gin and gave it an approving sip. I wonder if crack-smokers have this sense of conoisseurship about their product.

After brunch, we walked among the green-glass condos of Pacific Blvd. to get to the Granville Bridge. We wanted to cross the river and check out the Granville Island Public Market. The day, I should note, was not cool and rainy. The sun had come out and it was in the mid-70s, so we were overdressed. Still, we decided to walk on to the market, despite the mild discomfort and just-kinda-sweatiness.

Of course, the bridge was longer than it looked, and of course there was no quick way from it to the market on the island. We walked through the modernist furniture shop quarter (?), past the Afghani restaurant, and into The Throng.

I’m sorry if you’ve been to the market and loved it, or if you’ve never been and want a pretty description of it. To us, it seemed like a nautical-themed tourist trap, and I spent enough years in Annapolis, MD, thank you very much. I know it probably has a lot to recommend it, but we were caught in a tide of shambling vacationers, including “Japanese Snooki,” as I pointed out to my wife.

Granville did have a pretty amazing and extensive food-market. We picked up some wonderful gelatos and made a return trip on Tuesday before leaving town to get some stuff, but it was incredibly crowded on a summer Sunday, and Amy & I both get antsy around big crowds, so we made a relatively quick exit from the market, walked down to the docks, boarded an Aquabus to cross the river and started our walk back to the hotel.

We walked up Granville St., parallel to Howe. I was expecting more of the high-end shopping found on our street and on Robson, our perpendicular, which is apparently Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue. Instead, we got a run-down street with stripperwear stores, music shops, and some cheap retailers. I was happy to see it. A few blocks up, the street was closed to car traffic. A corporate-sponsored trick-bicycle event was going on, attracting a ton of youths from whatever subset of the culture digs bike-stunts. We made our way home, cutting through that Pacific Centre mall, where I noticed the aforementioned Harry Rosen shop, and rested before dinner.

Amy was in charge of selecting restaurants in Vancouver. She’s the food-blogger, after all. Her pals recommended Cru, on the other side of the river. It would’ve been a long walk (I reconstructed our Sunday walk on Google Maps after I got home: 4.4 miles), so we got the car from the valet and drove over. I had to get change for the parking meter, so Amy went on ahead of me to the restaurant. Walking up West Broadway by myself, I noticed several bookstores and a comic joint. I know I’m in a buying ban, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look, right? In fact, I noticed that my pal Ron Rosenbaum’s new book was in a window for half-price or thereabouts!

my new book is da bomb

I also passed a place that I’m only including here because it will make exactly one reader piss herself with laughter:

IMG_1299

(You’re welcome, Tina.)

I joined Amy in the restaurant, where we had the following off the small plates menu:

  • Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio
  • Syrah-braised Beef Short Rib (with mac & cheese)
  • Moroccan-spiced Lamb Chop
  • Miso marinated BC Sablefish
  • Side Greens

The carpaccio was fantastic, the sablefish was disappointing (esp. after the awesome miso black cod dish I had at Masa 13 in DC last June). In all, it was a fine meal, with only one problem: my dad called.

I noticed a “missed-call/voice-mail” on the phone when I picked up my jacket after dessert. The call had been at 7:45 p.m., or nearly 11:00 p.m. back at home. I assumed that something terrible had happened to him or to the dogs, so I ran out to the sidewalk and called him back. No answer on his cell, so I checked the voice mail.

He said, “I hope you’re having a good time on your trip. I just want to let you know, there was a lot of rain today. At least 7 inches by JFK. I don’t know if your dog-sitter can take care of the boys with all this rain. Should I call her?”

Shaking my head, I walked back into the restaurant. “What is it?” Amy asked. “Is everything okay?”

“Apparently, it rained a lot. Dad thinks maybe he should help walk the dogs.”

“Rain.”

“Yeah, rain. Seven inches by JFK.”

“Good thing we don’t live anywhere near JFK.”

Now, I’m glad my dad was concerned about the dogs’ welfare, don’t get me wrong. But he knows that the one time something terrible happened to one of the dogs, it was when I was away traveling and a dog-walker just didn’t know which houses to steer clear of. I have plenty of anxiety every time I go away on a trip, because I have to give up responsibility for the dogs and trust someone not to make a mistake.

So you’d think he wouldn’t worry me by calling when I’m out of the country to tell me nothing more significant than the news about a few inches of rain. But then, he’s the same guy who sends me e-mail jokes about airplane crashes when I’m about to fly out for business trips.

We cruised back to the Metropolitan, had a drink at the hotel bar, and turned in early.

Back at the room, I e-mailed Dad that the dog-sitter was probably getting along just fine, but he could call her to check up on Monday.

Certainly, I could have written this day down to, “We walked a few miles, visited a tourist trap, had a nice meal, and missed a ton of rain back in NJ,” but where’s the fun in that?

Coming up in Day 5: Stanley Park Death March

Unrequired Reading: April Link Showers

Bizarre! I was just settling in to collect my May Twitter-links for a big Unrequired Reading when I discovered that last month’s load o’ links never went live! So here’s all of April’s great stuff! I’ll post May’s tomorrow!

* * *

It’s time for another month’s worth of Twitter links, dear readers! If you want to follow along, I’m at twitter.com/groth18!

First, the retweets:

RT @mookiewilson86 (paul raff): David Koresh had a better homestand than the Mets.

* * *

RT @ESQStyle Esquire Style: And the best-dressed male guest at the #RoyalWedding is… not David Beckham.

* * *

RT @felixsalmon (felix salmon): Wherein Martin Amis blathers on for 4,000 dutiful but unnecessary words about Christopher Hitchens.

* * *

RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Client request of the year.

* * *

RT @simondoonan (Simon Doonan): Creative factory: Simon Doonan, My Faves!

* * *

RT @GreatDismal (William Gibson): “WE HELPED YOUR GRANDAD GET LAID” #daytonbootsvancouver

* * *

RT @mattzollerseitz (Matthew Zoller Seitz): “‘After Hours’ exists to prove that ‘Taxi Driver’ actually displayed some restraint. @notjustmovies

* * *

RT @JPosnanski (Joe Posnanski): In honor of touching CNN story, I write a little more about Nick Charles and a moment I’ll never forget.

* * *

RT @asymmetricinfo (Megan McArdle): Why Europe won’t develop as an independent military power

* * *

RT @kottke (kottke.org): Hilarious fake TLC promo

* * *

RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Bored at work. Photoshopping Bieber’s head onto things.

* * *

RT @questlove (?Love of The Roots): Man. Not even “OJ Guilt” is the proper colloquialism for what I feel after eatin Cinnabon.

* * *

And now, the links!

NBA Action: Bet On It! #IhadSpursandMagicinthefinals

* * *

Ah, #vodka, with your “marketing gimmicks that make getting drunk seem like a gateway to fame and fortune

* * *

The bowling alley of the #Frick: it’s no basement of the Alamo, but still.

* * *

There’s now a computer as dumb as my boss. #thatswhatshesaid

* * *

Joe Queenan goofs on the #gehry glut.

* * *

Is anyone at the #royalwedding sporting a monkey-tail beard?

* * *

Via @khoi, abandoned Yugoslavia monuments of awesomeness.

* * *

Xanadu comes back to life! (Will #MichaelBeck and @olivianj be at the opening?)

* * *

Xanadu: More of disaster than @XanaduMovie? #likedecoratinganuclearreactor #bringbacktheAlexander’smural

* * *

In the movie, I see Billy Bob Thornton as the local, and Pesci as the mobster: #greateststoryever #trustme

* * *

Tefillin: it’s like Jewish blood pressure.” Go, @MitzvahTank! #areyouJewish?

* * *

Will nobody think of the #pistachios?!

* * *

#AllStarSuperman never should’ve released the sun-eater from captivity:

* * *

The Walk of Shame goes #StreetStyle, via @sartorialist

* * *

So VCs are like the AIDS activists of our time?

* * *

I’m all for taking advantage of gorgeous chicks, but sheesh! #modelscam (via @felixsalmon)

* * *

#HaroldBloom and his “elite Europhile glasses” #agon

* * *

Eat lead! #staedtler and #fabercastell at war

* * *

Every so often, I remind myself why I find contempo literary fiction useless and stultifyingly dull

* * *

Go read this #BenKatchor interview! Nownownow! #CardboardValise (just plow through the “what is comics?” section)

* * *

@felixsalmon delivers a (much appreciated) Jonathan Franzen smackdown

* * *

@witoldr on the secret language of architects.

* * *

This #Houdini article escapes from the need to write in complete sentences. #escapeartistry

* * *

I guess I oughtta get around to reading #GeoffDyer sometime, huh?

* * *

In honor of tonight’s season 2 premiere of #Treme on #HBO, check out this interview with #WendellPierce (#BunkMoreland)

* * *

#ChrisElliott has a DAUGHTER on SNL? #igrowold

* * *

Dali makes aliyah!

* * *

Ron Rosenbaum implores us to visit (Joyce’s) Ithaca (but not much else). (I admit I’ll likely skip #Ulysses)

* * *

I’m awfully happy with my @allenedmonds, I have to say

* * *

I look down on my wife. #shekicksmeintheshins

* * *

#Starbury = Jim Jones?

* * *

Is it good or bad that my TV/movie/prose diet is so similar to that of #StevenSoderbergh? #MillersCrossing!

* * *

25 years ago: Graceland and the Gatwick Baby

* * *

“People who drink coffee are different in many ways from those who don’t drink coffee” #whataboutgin?

* * *

Geoff Dyer on being allergic to David Foster Wallace’s writing (his compare/contrast w/Federer is great)

* * *

“You look into the fiery furnace and see the rich man without any name” #wallstreet

* * *

Neat video of @billy_reid at home.

* * *

@simondoonan on camp: “I am not the brightest Art Nouveau lamp in the room…” #needIsaymore?

* * *

NOLA: The Big Hypothetical

* * *

Fun interview with Glenn O’Brien, onetime Warhol employee and current #StyleGuy for #GQ: #howtobeaman #glennobrien

* * *

Ah, get back to me around yer 20th reunion, ya young bastid.

* * *

Neat take on Android, Google’s business model, and moats.

* * *

Authors and broken promises. #Icantgetstarted

* * *

I would prefer not to poke you. #groupmeh

* * *

Um, the good news is that “cancer” doesn’t exist (the bad news is that it’s more complex than anyone thought) #uhoh

* * *

Would it have more success if it were called a “scrodpiece”? #probablynot

* * *

“It’s still real to me, dammit!” #soareconcussions #andearlydeath #wwe

* * *

When Antonioni met Tarkovsky: #shakeitlikeaPolaroidpicture

* * *

RPG = Rocket-Powered Genius (of design) #rocketpunchgeneration

* * *

@rupaul answers all questions, except, “What’s up with the mustache?” #dragrace

* * *

@david_j_roth speaks truth to pizza (I still don’t understand how @pizzahut stays in business here in NJ.)

* * *

Is there a Damien Hirst level to unlock? #jeffkoonsmustdie

* * *

By @mattnycs: Vote for the man in the small hat: a rabbi runs for office … in Uganda: Parts I and II #really

* * *

Hot chicks with (old) douchebags: #Iblamesociety #Ialsoblamehotchicks

* * *

No Shakespeare in Topeka? #talentnotgenius #billjames

* * *

#Koppenburg: why I don’t bike. #whoneedstheexercise?

* * *

Accidental Mysteries: masked #seenandunseen

* * *

GREAT piece by @comicsreporter on a trip to the #centerforcartoonstudies

* * *

Because, as we know from #chrisrock, books are like Kryptonite to… certain people: #padandquill

* * *

The Perplexitude of Hilfiger

* * *

Proto-Facebook

* * *

Darkness at Noonan: #tomgoestothebar (happy 60th, Tom Noonan!)

* * *

And I close this month’s edition with a non-link:

“I used to believe that worry was a talisman against something bad happening to you.” thx for the wisdom, @ConanOBrien (& @MarcMaron)!

Unrequired Reading: September 3, 2010

Labor Day weekend linkage! Read some stuff and then have a long weekend!

What It Is: 6/7/10

What I’m reading: Pattern Recognition

What I’m listening to: Around the World in a Day, Wake Up the Nation, and The Finest Thing

What I’m watching: Extract and In The Loop

What I’m drinking: Budweiser Select 55. Don’t judge me. I was at an impromptu crawfish boil. See?

IMG_0662

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Gallivanting with their pals Ruby & Willow while we were away for the weekend in Louisiana (see the pictures!). Also, getting used to their new beds. Rufus is settling into his, but Otis has never had a new bed before, and is unaccustomed to its thickness. He tends to slide off of it, like a fat guy trying to get on an inflatable raft.

Where I’m going: Chicago & Madison, WI for a client’s press event. For two-and-a-half days. The last day will include a three-hour bus-ride to Madison, and a Madison-to-Milwaukee-to-Newark flight home.

What I’m happy about: Not dying from eating a bad crawfish.

What I’m sad about: That only two of my friends sent me this Slate story about gin the moment they saw it. I expected at least a half-dozen of you to forward that to me.

What I’m worried about: Well, I was worried about my eyesight, because I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my contacts in the past few weeks. If I read on the computer or the iPhone for a little while, I found my eyes just couldn’t focus well. Only this morning did I discover that my optometrist, or the contact lens company, sent half of this year’s lenses in my standard prescription, and the other half with a stronger prescription. So, for 6 weeks, I’ve been using lenses that are too strong for my eyes. Grar.

What I’m pondering: How much my life has changed since I first read Pattern Recognition. I wrote about it in the very early days of this blog (Feb. 2003), and was pretty dismissive. Now I find it much more fulfilling, even if one of my earlier critiques holds up (the McGuffin is still too similar to that of his second novel). I’m no longer so sensitive about its 9/11-ness, and my own awareness/interest in fashion and corporate brands has helped inform this re-reading of the book. The really jarring thing this time was the first chapter or so, which felt embarrassingly like “SF writer not quite ready to downshift into a here-and-now setting.” The opening descriptions feel like they’re from another novel, before he got the hang of writing about “the present.” But I’m much more forgiving, this time around.

Unrequired Reading: June 4, 2010

I’m off to Louisiana! Down in the Treme, just me and my baby! (okay, we’ll be nowhere near Treme, but still.)

Unrequired Reading: Mar. 27, 2009

Llllllllllet’s get ready for liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinks!

Unrequired Reading: June 20, 2008

Let’s get linkical!

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