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 3

Saturday, Aug. 13: Discovery Park & the Cosmic Cube

I loosened the lap-band of the seatbelt, slid my hips down the seat slightly, and repositioned my left leg. The van driver had both hands on the wheel, but I knew I’d only have a second to react if he reached for a weapon. I was close enough to kick his hand from my position in the first row, middle-seat. If he pivoted toward us, I’d likely be able to hit his chin instead. No, I thought, better to go for the weapon.

He had taken us on such out-of-the-way roads, I could only assume that he was driving us to the local Motel Hell for murder and/or cannibalistic fine dining. My right hand creeped closer to the seatbelt buckle, so I could quickly free myself if I needed to dodge a knife-thrust.

Beside me, Amy looked out the driver-side window. I kept my sunglasses on and cursed myself for wearing my Sperry’s; the top-siders had nowhere near the heft of my blue-suede oxfords.

His left hand dropped out of sight for a half-second. I tensed. The turn signal began to click and the sign ahead read “SPOKANE AIRPORT – 1/2 MILE”.

He changed lanes. I relaxed. I hadn’t even started the William Gibson novel yet.

* * *

We had a mid-morning flight back to Seattle, so I spent my morning reading Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art on my Kindle over coffee at the Davenport (purchased at Brews Bros. around the corner, home of the way-too-cheery baristas). Reading all 12 books of A Dance to the Music of Time — one a month — is my Dilettante Improvement Project for 2011. Last year’s DIP was to try a new (to me) boutique/artisanal gin every month. Let’s just say I exceeded my goals:

My Year of Gin

It’s funny, but I still don’t know how to answer my wife when she asks me if I’m enjoying the Dance. I am, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone in my life. It’s a veritable soap opera of the intertwined lives of some British schoolmates, from around 1918 to maybe the mid-60’s. (The last book was written in 1972, but I’ve deliberately done zero research into what any of the books cover.) I say “veritable” because the narrator, Nick Jenkins, manages to leave out lots of aspects of life that might make for good reading: like the birth of his first child or almost any depiction of his relationship with his wife. But Powell still creates a pretty fantastic tapestry of the social web that ties the four men and their extended friends together.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, back at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, reading an e-book and drinking coffee. That’s my idea of a vacation. Amy refused to leave the bed for a while. I don’t blame her.

* * *

At SeaTac, we picked up our increasingly heavy suitcase quickly (now with heavier shoes!), and headed over to the rental area. The plan was to pick up our car, have lunch with a pal, drop him off at another pal’s cookout, and zoom on up to Vancouver for 3 nights.

No one was at the Hertz desk, so I had to use a touchscreen kiosk to go through the entire rental process. I got a little frustrated at the repetitive inputs of some of the screens, but my wife cheerily said, “Look on the bright side: you don’t have to talk to anyone!” and I perked right up. Gotta love a woman who knows that her husband would get his hair cut over the internet, if he could.

We got our run-of-the-mill maroon Altima and headed to downtown Seattle to pick up my pal Finkelstein. I was filled with dread. Not because I hadn’t seen Fink in 4 years, but because I had to drive on Seattle’s highways. On our last trip here in 2007, the highway signs were so terrible that we repeatedly missed turns, despite having a GPS unit in the rental. This time, either the signs were improved or the GPS systems have learned to adjust, the way players on the Nuggets learn to deal with the altitude.

We picked up Fink at his office building, as he’d gone in to work for a few hours on Saturday.

“What does he do?” Amy asked.

“Dunno,” I said. I’d never thought to ask. When I met him, he was working in The Smoke Shop in Annapolis, MD. He’ll probably tell you that was the happiest job of his life. I think that’s why I don’t ask him about his gigs.

I don’t know if it’s in the nature of Seattle or of Fink — he grew up there, so it could be both — but he directed us through a bazillion neighborhoods during our Escape From Downtown. We eventually reached our lunch destination: Chinook, a seafood restaurant overlooking Salmon Bay in the Magnolia neighborhood. Fink is enough of a regular at the place that he could banter with the waitress a bit. An ardent reader of Amy’s blog, I think he felt pressured to come up with a really good restaurant. I’m glad my wife’s rep precedes her, when it leads to awesome meals.

She’ll get around to writing about the fish we had for lunch sometime. I will instead tell you about the dessert. Fink & Amy elected to split some sorta shortcake, in which she ate the fruit and some cream, and he had the crust. That’s because she’s on a gluten-free diet. Since I am most assuredly not on a gluten-free diet, I ordered The Bread Pudding.

Amy has photographic evidence of what arrived on my plate, but the lack of depth in the shot doesn’t do it justice. I was served the Cosmic Cube of Bread Pudding. It was about 5″ on each side, and was so dense it should have come with a reinforced fork. I thought the table would tip over, like the Flintstones’ car.

I said, “Clearly, I’m an honored guest, or they wouldn’t have brought me all of the bread pudding they have. It’d be rude not to eat it.”

“And with your family’s history of diabetes, there’s no point in forestalling the inevitable,” Amy pointed out.

“Wait: is that custard or the accretion disk?” Fink asked.

There was some question as to whether I’d fall asleep before I could finish it, but I rallied. Also, the hyperdensity of the pudding caused time to bend. Fink and Amy aged a full week while the bread pudding and I were cruising along at relativistic speeds.

After lunch, it was obvious that I needed coffee, between the incipient caffeine withdrawal and the dwarf star I was now carrying in my belly. We walked over to a nearby cafe and chatted for a while as I refueled.

Seattle’s the first place I ever had coffee, on my summer 2001 trip here. It was some mocha thing my pal Shari ordered for me, and I thought the chocolate-component was somehow necessary for coffee. It took me quite a while before I settled on my perfect coffee: a cup of goddamned black coffee. No milk, no sugar.

I tried ordering that this time, but they said they were out of drip. They’d make an Americano instead, which made me feel a teensy bit like George Clooney in that Anton Corbijn movie he did last year. Amy didn’t notice any Clooneyness about me, sadly.

Conversation: I’m not very good at characterizing what Fink & I talk about. We met almost 20 years ago and have fallen out of each others’ lives a bit in the past decade, but there’s still no one on earth who can grok my thought-processes the way that boy can. I think I wrote about this after our 2007 visit, but it’s possible I never published that, for reasons that I won’t publish now.

So we rambled on our paired wavelength, and Amy seemed alright with the sections that weren’t relatable. I recall us talking about Dylan, Rush, Gillian Welch, the Yankees’ pitching staff and that Fran Lebowitz documentary (he hasn’t seen it yet) before we hit the road. He figured it was early enough that we could stop at a park for a bit before going to his pal’s cookout.

I always forget that he’s not great with time, which is ironic, because he’s a drummer.

We drove on to Discovery Park, a pretty area that looks across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. That’s where I took this picture:


Amy hung back and took pictures while Fink & I kept talking. I told him about reading The Most Human Human recently. There’s a chapter on chess, which was one of his interests. The writer, Brian Christian, explored the ways in which opening theory had, in a sense, damaged chess by turning it into a game of memorization. That is, if you recalled enough openings, you could keep to a script and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. That sort of approach falls into the non-existent hands of computers, which can be taught to recognize most any opening pattern and weigh the best means to match them. It’s here that Christian makes one of his best points in the book. See, the history of philosophy has been filled with attempts at branding man as “the animal who . . .”, to show that some aspect of our minds are what separate us from beasts. Now, we find computers impinging from the other direction, mastering activities that we considered most human.

So Fink told me about chess and opening theory issues and we hashed out some notions of cognition that neither of us bothered writing down. And we sat on a bench and watched the cruise-liners head out through the Sound. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and starting to get late, but I figured the cookout was nearby, and we’d be okay.

I could not have been more wrong. Fink apparently wanted to show us all of Seattle in a single drive. If we had intercutting dialogue and multiple uninteresting storylines, it couldn’t have been more like Altman’s Short Cuts, except that no shortcuts were involved.

But what’s to gripe? We popped in the new Mad Mix CD I assembled, “Wyvern & Kobold, LLP,” and drove. We made a booze-stop so he could bring something to the cookout, and eventually made our way to the home of Eric S., proto-blogger extraordinaire. (Boy, that sounds gross.)

About that mix CD: Fink was irate that I put The Golden Age by Asteroids Galaxy Tour on it, but was cheered that it was immediately followed by the Eurythmics’ For the Love of Big Brother. It’s a weird mix. If you ask, maybe I’ll burn you a copy.

About the cookout: I’d corresponded with Eric for years, but this would be our first get-together. However, it was already 6:15 and we had no idea how long a wait we’d have at the border crossing into Canada that night. I was in San Diego once with a pal and he showed me what the Friday afternoon traffic to get into Tijuana was. The sign said “5 hours.” I figured Vancouver on a Saturday night isn’t as much of a draw.

So I made apologies to Eric almost instantly upon arrival, although I initially too-exaggeratedly berated him for never having watched the Coen Bros.’ A Serious Man. Then I blamed Fink for our tardiness (as opposed to, say, my talking Fink’s ear off), and asked him, “What are you reading?”

This is just about the only question I care to ask anyone, btw. No one really answers, “How are you?” with anything more than politeness and, unless I know of some dire condition affecting your family or friends, I won’t ask about them till I’ve run out of questions about books and art. I think I’ve always been like that, but I’m becoming more honest about it in my middle age.

Eric was working his way through W.G. Sebald, in order of (German) publication. I’d only read WGS’ On the Natural History of Destruction, and didn’t have any good observations about the work. Boo, me. We rambled for a little bit, although I was conscious that we were the only members of the cookout who didn’t really know anyone there, and I didn’t want to keep the host from performing his hostly duties.

We made a date for Tuesday evening, when Amy & I would be back in town for the last night of our vacation. And then we hit the road.

Fink had given us directions back to I-5 that I couldn’t possibly have remembered, but was sure would take us in the wrong direction. The GPS gave us an ETA in Vancouver of a little more than 2.25 hours, not including border-crossing delays. I asked Amy to call our hotel and let them know we’ll be arriving late.

We hit the road, immediately regretting not bringing a headphone cable with us to connect the iPod to the car stereo. Fink had taken the new Mad Mix, so we had to resort to terrestrial radio. At best, we got to hear lots of classic rock. Closing in on Canada, we started to hear DJs talking in that mongrel French they speak up there. For some reason, I hadn’t thought of Vancouver as particularly French-Canadian. Don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I should’ve done the slightest bit of research before this trip.

One thing I did read up on was the drive up to Canada on I-5/Rt.99. It was supposed to be gorgeous, but Amy & I were both unimpressed. Maybe it was the dusk-hour, the overcast skies, or the fact that we live near some pretty great hills and wooded highways, but it just wasn’t as pretty as we’d heard. Still, it was nice to be out of a city and cruising on open roads.

The border crossing signs said it would be a 35-minute wait to enter Canada. They were correct, down to the minute. Near the end of our wait, I got nervous that I’d somehow failed to bring some token that we needed to cross. I mean, I had our passports, but I thought maybe there was some bureaucratic form that everybody knew about but me, and that we’d be laughed at by the border guard and turned away. Maybe everyone knew that it’s illegal to cross the border in a rental car. I don’t know. I imagine this shit all the time.

I am, as I’ve said, no fun to travel with.

Our passports were just fine, but the border guard was a douche. He looked at us suspiciously as he checked our information, then asked, “What were you up to?”

Not “What brings you to Canada?” or “Are you on vacation?” or “Do you like indy comics?” but “What were you up to?”

I told him, “We’re on vacation. A friend got married in Spokane and now we’re headed up to Vancouver for a few days to see the city.” I was irate at getting glared at. I wanted to say, “I pay your salary!”, but I don’t. Still, I worried, if they’re this weird entering Canada, how much worse will the U.S. guards be on Tuesday?

He waved us through, and we zoomed on another 35 or 40 minutes to the hotel, the Metropolitan. We checked in, greeted by the person Amy had phoned when we first hit the road. She was of Asian descent and had a French-Canadian accent. Maybe it was just a long day, with hours of driving and a 40-minute flight and a lump of bread pudding and everything else, but I literally stopped understanding her while she was greeting us.

She was talking and talking, and I realized the words weren’t sinking in, so I just looked at her mouth for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Amy, realizing that my brain had shut off, chimed in, “That would be great, thanks!”

The girl broke out a local map and drew a bunch of Xs in one area and told us, “Don’t go down this street. It’s the only really bad area you have to watch out for.” I understood that. We took our key-cards and headed for the elevator.

It was around 10:00 p.m. as we got to the room, unpacked, considered the minibar, and slumped into bed. The bed was awfully nice (albeit not as wondrous as the Davenport’s).

Amy said, “I meant to ask: did you have ANY idea where that taxi-driver was taking us this morning?”

“No, but FBI agent Burt Macklin had everything under control, Ms. Snakehole.”

“Call me Janet,” she said, mock-cigarette holder between her fingers.

Coming up in Day 4: Granville Market and Lavender Gin!

It’s the Part I Was Born To Play!

I listened to a neat interview with Brian Christian on the Monocle Weekly podcast last week (it’s edition 98, if you wanna download it). The lead interviewer, host Tyler Brule, admitted that he hadn’t read Mr. Christian’s new book, The Most Human Human (subtitled, “What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive”), so some of his questions were a little off-topic or perhaps naive. But Mr. Christian gave the impression that he’s used to having to carry the conversation about his chosen topic, and did so wonderfully (to my ears).

The premise of the book (and here’s a good review of it) is that our interactions with computers may help us learn more about what it means to be human.

One of the interesting points in the Monocle interview was that, while computers have grown ever more advanced and nearly won a Turing contest a few years ago, humans are veritably regressing to a less nuanced, less sensual world. That is, while they’re becoming more human, we’re becoming more computer-like. It’s a theme I’ve pondered for many years (including, probably, on this blog, but I’m too lazy to look it up). As Mr. Christian put it in the interview (transcription by me, with a little editing):

The computer represents simultaneously a chance to achieve the next enlightenment about what the human condition is all about, as well as a threat to that very condition. That to me is one of the great ironies. For example, if you look back over the history of philosophy, there’s been this ancient question: what is it that makes the human being different, special and unique?

Typically, philosophers, starting from Aristotle and Plato and on to Descartes have begun by trying to contrast human beings with animals. To differentiate humans from animals, you have to write the body out of the equation. Right from the start, philosophers zeroed in on the most abstract aspects of cognition, things like algebra and symbolic logic.

I think one of the great surprises for that line of thinking is that the development of the computer in the 20th century represented an intrusion into precisely those areas that were considered to be the unique hallmarks of human intelligence. What we’re finding is that a lot of what we considered to be the embodied, sensory, in-the-world experience actually represents a greater degree of cognitive and computational sophistication.

But one of the great ironies is that we’re now living in the world in a more disembodied way. Instead of actually going somewhere, we just go onto the internet and remotely interact with somebody who’s far away. To an observer from space, most jobs — regardless of what it is your job entails — would look the same: sitting at your laptop for 8 hours. Maybe you’re an architect, maybe you’re a lawyer, maybe you’re a journalist, but the experience has become almost totally disembodied.

Earlier in the conversation, he notes:

One of the strange things about the development of AI is that it’s sort of like biological evolution running backwards. Computers proved themselves capable of what we think of as being high-level tasks, like multivariable calculus and grandmaster chess, but they’re still trying to get their hooks into things like recognizing a face or understanding an ambiguity in a sentence.

I think it points out the unsung and not very celebrated complexity of life. It turns out that a lot of these tasks, precisely the things we take for granted, are many of the things that have proven the most difficult and most complicated for programmers to try to simulate.

In the interview, Mr. Christian doesn’t get at the notion that computers also don’t ask, “Why?”, which I think is a big deal, but I bet that comes up in the book at some point. Still, it’s a great leaping-off point, to explore how the heavy-duty, advanced, abstract thought isn’t exactly what “makes us human.” To Mr. Christian, who played the part of the human in a Turing Test competition in 2009 (hence the title of this post), graceful language remains the key to us.

In the Monocle interview, he talked about one of the ways in which our technology actually seems to lessen us:

Why are people talking in such a flat, emotionless way? Part of it is that so much of communication in modern life is happening through a technological medium. This takes the form of everything from e-mail and text messages and even cellphones. Compared to a landline, which has a vocal lag of 1/10th of a second, a cellphone has six times as long of a lag, 6/10ths of a second. By the time you’ve said something and the other person’s reacted, it’s going to be a minimum of 1.2 seconds before you get that feedback. Whereas, when you’re sitting across from someone, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s a certain style of humor or a certain grace that will leave a pause at the end of a sentence, that implies “I could be done talking, if you want me to be, or I could keep going.” There’s a certain grace to these 10ths of a second. And the more that we talk to each other over cellphones, the more that communication starts to enter this very rigid walkie-talkies style: “Now I’m talking, now you’re talking.” And we lose something as a result.

Being really aware of the kinds of concessions that technology forces us to make, gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about what’s going on when we sit down across a table from someone. It gives us an opportunity to approach those interactions a little more mindfully and, I hope, better.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that latency is why I hate talking on cellphones. I figured it was something wrong with me, my feeling that the other person is always distracted, but now I think it’s an instinctive reaction to that extra half-second delay of conversation, the unbridgeable distance it signifies. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why I find so many face-to-face conversations unbearable or awkward nowadays.)

But as I mentioned, this idea of human flattening-out is something I’ve turned over in my head for quite a while. While singing along to The National’s “I’m Afraid of Everyone” this past year, I’ve had to deal with the fact that my language is deteriorating. Years of editing trade magazine articles, of denuding press releases of their adjectives, of keeping up with RSS, Twitter and Facebook feeds, of forgetting poetry: they’ve taken a toll on me. I’m at a loss for words. When I’m nearly asleep, I find my thoughts getting structured in terms of screens of information. It’s not a condition I’m happy about (as I type away on this screen).

This weekend, I decided to cut my computer usage back a bit. I read a book over that span, wrote almost no e-mails, didn’t work on the long post about our Toronto trip last weekend: nada. It was refreshing. This morning, I zapped a bazillion RSS items, ignoring whatever recording angel thinks I should be monitoring them all. I marked-as-read, I closed tabs, I deleted bookmarks. Then I reread and savored the last two chapters of The Leopard.

Time for some poetry, before I get back to writing about single-use/disposable systems for bioprocessing tomorrow.