Books, 2016

Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.

Books, 2015

I read a lot of books in 2015 and tracked them pretty reliably via Goodreads. Whereas last year I claimed to have read 24 books (probably I missed updating Goodreads for a few), this year I logged 74 for a total of about 25,500 pages. I suppose I cheated a little bit, since a whole bunch of those were books I read aloud to the kids, though they weren’t tiny little Golden Books or anything (average page count per book came out to around 345 on the whole), so maybe it wasn’t cheating after all.

Highlights included the Series of Unfortunate Events series (started in late August and finished at the tail end of December) and the Prydain Chronicles series, which were both fun and represented a lot of evening and weekend reading with the kids, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I reread a few books. I had been nervous about rereading Infinite Jest after several years, but it held up for me. I also reread The Recognitions and didn’t love it. I reread some Vonnegut that we had sitting around and had mixed feelings. I accidentally reread some Roth that I had forgotten I had read years ago, and though I didn’t much like the novella I reread, I did wind up enjoying some of the stories that were packaged in the same volume with it.

Part of what boosted my reading stats this year was an effort to participate in the Tournament of Books. I forget how many of the selections I wound up reading, but I believe it was around a dozen, and a few of them pretty lengthy. The ToB introduced me to a rare five-star read in All the Light We Cannot See. I tend to reserve five-star ratings for books that change the way I think about the world or that had some other profound effect on my life. AtLWCS probably didn’t quite do either of these things, but it really was top-notch writing, so I gave it a 5.

I awarded another 5-star rating to Half of a Yellow Sun, which remains the best book I’ve read all year. It taught me things about the world, made me really feel for its characters, made me laugh, and was generally just beautifully written. I’ve recommended it to many people this year.

Although I had heard of Jonathan Lethem, I had never read him before, and late in the year I picked up several of his books and liked them all a lot. I’ll read more of his work for sure. So far, he’s been a consistent 4-star rating for me (meaning that I liked the books a whole lot, even if they didn’t change my life).

I read more genre fiction this year than I’m accustomed to, picking up several sci-fi things (if you include Vonnegut, who sort of straddles literary fiction and sci-fi). Not listed below or accounted for in my stats are a number of the Poirot stories by Agatha Christie and probably a few Sherlock stories as well. I also read a lot more nonfiction than usual, mostly books about teamwork and leadership that I read as I transitioned into a leadership role at work.

Although I’ve striven in general to read a fair number of books by people who are not white men, it’s clear from looking over the list below that I’ve done a pretty poor job. I suppose it makes sense that fiction by white dudes would resonate with me since I am a white dude, but I’d like to continue to read things that offer perspectives from behind a gaze different from my own. My favorite book of the year is after all by a Nigerian woman, so it’s clearly to my benefit to read things by people who are not white dudes.

The table below shows my recorded books for the year, sorted by rating and then by whatever Goodreads chooses as a secondary sorting field. The unrated books at the bottom I think I just forgot to rate (though in the case of the Dara book, I felt like I needed to read it again some time before deciding how I felt about it).

Title Author Stars Kids For Work Nonfiction Reread Not a White Dude
All the Light We Cannot See Doerr, Anthony 5 N N N N N
Half of a Yellow Sun Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 5 N N N N Y
Infinite Jest Wallace, David Foster 5 N N N Y N
The Fortress of Solitude Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
The End (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #13) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
When Teams Work Best Lafasto, Frank 4 N Y Y N N
The Painter Heller, Peter 4 N N N N N
Mason and Dixon Pynchon, Thomas 4 N N N N N
Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1) VanderMeer, Jeff 4 N N N N N
The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
Dept. of Speculation Offill, Jenny 4 N N N N Y
The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story Wickersham, Joan 4 N N N N Y
The Sense of an Ending Barnes, Julian 4 N N N N N
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall Chancellor, Will 4 N N N N N
Chronic City Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Gun, With Occasional Music Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The House of the Spirits Allende, Isabel 4 N N N N Y
Paper Towns Green, John 4 N N N N N
Wittgenstein Jr Iyer, Lars 4 N N N N N
Men in Space McCarthy, Tom 4 N N N N N
Motherless Brooklyn Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Sartoris Faulkner, William 4 N N N N N
Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Eggers, Dave 4 N N N N N
Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Americanah Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 3 N N N N Y
The Recognitions Gaddis, William 3 N N N Y N
The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain #5) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Miserable Mill (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #4) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Wide Window (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #3) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Ersatz Elevator (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #6) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Dragon Lantern (The League of Seven, #2) Gratz, Alan 3 Y N N N N
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead Bock, Laszlo 3 N Y Y N N
The Grim Grotto (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #11) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Sound and the Fury Faulkner, William 3 Y N N N N
A Brief History of Seven Killings James, Marlon 3 N N N N Y
The Austere Academy (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #5) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Prince and the Pauper Twain, Mark 3 Y N N Y N
The Slippery Slope (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #10) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Hostile Hospital (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #8) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories Roth, Philip 3 N N N N N
The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain #3) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Fermata Baker, Nicholson 3 N N N N N
The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain #2) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society, #1) Stewart, Trenton Lee 3 Y N N N N
The Vile Village (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #7) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Bauby, Jean-Dominique 3 N N Y N N
The Word Exchange Graedon, Alena 3 N N N N Y
Silence Once Begun Ball, Jesse 3 N N N N N
Divisadero Ondaatje, Michael 3 N N N N Y
The Carnivorous Carnival (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #9) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Penultimate Peril (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #12) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
All the Birds, Singing Wyld, Evie 3 N N N N Y
Middle C Gass, William H. 3 N N N N N
Between the World and Me Coates, Ta-Nehisi 3 N N Y N Y
Looking for Alaska Green, John 2 N N N N N
The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt 2 N N N Y N
1Q84 (1Q84, #1-3) Murakami, Haruki 2 N N N N Y
Ready Player One Cline, Ernest 2 N N N N N
Acceptance (Southern Reach, #3) VanderMeer, Jeff 2 N N N N N
Reamde Stephenson, Neal 2 N N N N N
Foundation (Foundation, #1) Asimov, Isaac 2 N N N N N
Deception Roth, Philip 2 N N N N N
Adam Schrag, Ariel 2 N N N N Y
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6) Verne, Jules 2 Y N N N N
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High Patterson, Kerry 2 N Y Y N N
The Bone Clocks Mitchell, David 2 N N N N N
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) Valente, Catherynne M. 2 N N N N Y
Generosity: An Enhancement Powers, Richard 1 N N N N N
Authority (Southern Reach, #2) VanderMeer, Jeff 1 N N N N N
Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain #4) Alexander, Lloyd N N N N N
The Lost Scrapbook Dara, Evan N N N N N
Foreign Bodies Ozick, Cynthia N N N N Y

gun, with occasional music

Although you’d think based on this post’s title and a spate of mass shootings in America this year (more than one per day, if I’m to believe what I see on the interwebs) that this’d be a political post, you’d turn out to be wrong. The title is the title of a novel by Jonathan Lethem, an author whose name I had heard for years but whose work I had never read until this year, when in July I picked up his Chronic City and enjoyed it a lot.

A few weeks ago, I found cheap copies of his gun, with occasional music and Motherless Brooklyn, and I read gun over the last few days.

It is ostensibly a sort of noir style detective novel, and the epigraph pays homage to Raymond Chandler, whom I’ve not read but who I gather wrote similar stuff. I don’t usually go for genre fiction because the appeal seems to me to be more in the familiarity of the framework and the trappings of the specific genre than in the creation of a distinct voice or other formal innovation that I’m likely to find interesting. I’m not passing judgment on genre fiction here, to be clear; there’s a lot to be said for finding a formula that you enjoy and sticking with it (I buy shirts and pants of the types I like basically in bulk because I find them comfortable). But the books I tend to enjoy most are the ones that do something a little different in terms of voice or structure or rule-breaking, and genre fiction by definition tends to follow established patterns and thus to avoid innovation of the sort that I find appealing. I feel like once I’ve read one or two noir stories, I understand the pattern, and reading a lot more of them in which the names and circumstances change slightly but the flavor is largely the same doesn’t interest me.

So when I first started in on gun, I wasn’t too excited by it. It felt like I was reading pretty standard noir fiction, and once I had the stereotypical noir narrator’s voice in my head, I felt like I’d maybe had my fill. But then there was mention of something called Forgettol, a particular sort of a generic snortable drug colloquially called “make.” This was sort of interesting. And then I came across this:

I rode up in the elevator with an evolved sow. She was wearing a bonnet and a flowered dress, but she still smelled like a barnyard. She smiled at me and I managed to smile back, then she got off on the fourth floor.

Well that’s an attention-getter! This was not to be standard noir fare after all. We encounter other evolved animals in the book, along with some “babyheads,” who are human children exposed to the same evolution technology used to turn animals into sort of human hybrids, with the result that they’re (the babyheads) mentally mature but stuck in the bodies of toddlers and seem understandably cranky and prone to drink. We learn that we’re in a dystopic future in which the state provides free make to keep people’s faculties sufficiently dulled and in which the police officers (called inquisitors) deduct karma points from your id card when you run afoul of them. We do of course also see the usual trappings of pulp detective fiction, complete with one-liners, hard drinking, the roughing up of various and sundry people, and pretty much everything you’d expect besides the lonely saxophone background music (if there’s an audio book, I’ll bet you get the saxophone too).

So the book turns out to be a neat mix of noir and something resembling dystopic sci-fi, with pretty fun results. I enjoyed the book a lot (also, it’s short, so the enjoyment to page count ratio was very high), and I enjoyed just as much how it helped me think a bit about what I find appealing (or not) about what I do like reading (and what I don’t).

Blind Date with a Bookseller


In Asheville there’s a cool little indie bookstore called Malaprop’s that I make a point of stopping by any time I’m in town. Almost every time I stop by, there’s some kind of event going on — an author reading, story time and face-painting for kids, that sort of thing. Yesterday my family and I went to Malaprop’s and discovered that we had just missed a book signing by the author of a book we had just recently purchased for the kids.

As I was browsing books, I found a shelf containing books wrapped in brown paper written on in black marker. A nearby sign revealed that the idea — dubbed “Blind Date with a Bookseller” — was that you’d buy a book on the vague, un-spoilerish recommendation of a staffer without knowing in advance what the book was. I loved the idea!

Of the half dozen or so different book descriptions on the shelf, the one pictured appealed to me the most, so I bought it. My wife was nervous that it might turn out to be one I had already read. I was a little nervous about the possibility too, but the little thrill of coming across this opportunity buying a surprise book outweighed the small risk. The store clerk assured us that if I had in fact read the book, I could return it for store credit. When I ripped into it, I discovered that it was in fact a book I already owned and had recently read, but that didn’t diminish my pleasure by very much at all. In fact, it was kind of fun to have myself sort of typecast as a reader interested in the sorts of things listed on the wrapper.

I won’t reveal what the book was, lest I spoil it for some reader who happens by Malaprop’s and decides to pick up a mystery book — which, if you are a reader in the Asheville area, you should!

David Foster Wallace

What an odd thing it is to mourn the loss of someone you didn’t know and can’t have known and have no personal right to mourn. It had happened to me twice in recent years before tonight.

The first time was Steve Irwin. When I learned that he had died, I felt much sadder than I really figured I ought to feel. He was a guy whose zest for life was so great and so contagious, whose wonder at the natural world and its discovery and preservation could hardly but be admired. When he died, I felt as if the world had lost a great vessel of happiness and verve. It was as if a light had been punched out. As shocking as it was, I can’t say that it was ultimately all that unexpected. He swam with dangerous animals and he flirted with death and lost, and the world was dimmer for the loss.

The next surprisingly saddening celebrity death for me was Heath Ledger. I actually hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain to know first-hand before his death that he was a sure talent, but all indications seemed to be that his trajectory was upward. His death, though less personal (even than Irwin’s, which felt more personal because of his affability), made me feel sad because it seemed the loss of a great potential talent. His performance in the Batman movie suggests that he drew from a deep well indeed, and so I mourned his death in what impersonal way I could for the sake of his art.

Tonight, I learned that David Foster Wallace has died, having hanged himself. This is the celebrity death to which I actually do have a personal attachment, although a very very tenuous one.

About a decade ago, my sister gave me for Christmas DFW’s book Infinite Jest. She confessed that she had originally gotten the book for herself but couldn’t slog through it and thought I might like it, given my interest in tennis. And slog through it I did. I was in college at the time, home on Christmas break. During the remainder of my Christmas holiday, I stayed in my room reading 10 – 20 hours a day and completed my first reading of Infinite Jest within 10 days of having received the book. (If you haven’t read it, you should know that this is a feat of endurance, though a most rewarding one.) I’ve read it a few times since, though not in the last few years.

I’ve read his other work too, of course, and have gone so far as to evangelize it, pressing upon friends and acquaintances  (willing and unwilling) my own copies of several of his books. One copy of Broom of the System I never got back.

Several years ago, having just read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (I believe), I wrote Wallace a one-or-two sentence letter thanking him for what seemed a very real honesty in his work. Months later, I got the pictured postcard in reply. What can better humanize and personalize an author than getting a thank-you note for a letter of appreciation?

Well, his work, that’s what. Wallace wrote with what seemed a devastating honesty about being a writer and, more importantly, about being human. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he wrote of despair (invoking another of my favorite authors, Melville); in “Consider the Lobster,” he wrote of the omnivore’s conundrum, something with which I’ve been struggling even just recently; his “Good Old Neon” I thought upon my first reading was perhaps the best short story I’d ever read precisely because of how it dealt with the sorts of insecurities we all feel; many of his brief interviews with hideous men I’m mortified to confess had a kernel of truth relevant even to my own experience. So much of his work was so, so good that the loss of more of it hurts hurts hurts.

A few years ago, I learned about an author named William Gaddis. He wrote only a few books, and two of them are great books and one of them is a funny but sub-great book and the others are ok. Having read the two great books, I was sad that he was dead having left no others. When I first read Steinbeck a few years ago, I found myself wishing he had managed to write just a few more books, so good were the ones I really appreciated. Pynchon has written a couple of really hard, really good novels, and a couple of other really hard worthwhile ones, and I’ll regret his death when he goes.

Wallace, in a similar but broader, much more approachable, human way, has always left me wanting more. For years, I’ve anticipated the release of his next great novel, and I’ve actually thought about the fact that, as a fairly young novelist (he’s 46 at his death), he has had the potential to write at least a few more great ones. The masters he’s followed have averaged a great book every decade or two, so we could have hoped for at least two more had he died relatively young (there has been speculation that he had a brick in the works). I feel so much more bereft as a result of Wallace’s death because he still had great potential during my lifetime and was in fact a young, budding author during my lifetime.

He wrote in various contexts of entertainment and its addictive nature. What could be more validating of his theses than the fact that so many are mourning the loss of the entertainment and stimulation that he provided us?

How much more selfish could one be — and of selfishness he wrote extensively — than to stay up late one night writing a piss-poor elegy for a man one didn’t know personally? Was this the final jest?

To hang oneself. What person in the industrialized world outside of a prison cell hangs himself? It’s morbid to think of this, but I don’t think morbidity is out of bounds for Wallace. What an awful way to go, swinging and jerking and thinking probably all the while about the best way to describe the scene in prose, how best to footnote the actual physiology of one’s own death.

To really express my admiration for David Foster Wallace and his talent, I’d have to quote most of his fucking ouvre.

I’m as sad over this as I’ve been over anything since my mom died.

His Dark Materials, Zadie Smith

I spent much of my 11-day holiday break either horizontal or wishing I was horizontal thanks to a back strain that’s still giving me fits. I took advantage of the time to get some reading done. M and I had gone to see The Golden Compass, and in anticipation of it, she purchased and read the trilogy of which that movie composes roughly one third. She was somewhat disappointed in how the movie chopped off the end of the first book and how it left out some of the back story about Dust. Having not read the books yet, I thought it was a pretty engaging movie, if it was a little slow at times (especially when Kidman was onscreen). In any case, watching the movie and hearing M talk about the books prompted me to read the books. Steinbeck they’re not, but I enjoyed the whole set. Oddly, where M found the second book to suffer from what she calls second book syndrome (wherein a second book in a set serves primarily to set up the more involved politics and relationships that drive subsequent books but are of limited interest on their own in terms of actually moving the plot along), I found it to be pretty interesting. On the whole, not a bad bunch of books for a quick read.

I had heard about an author named Zadie Smith. She made waves a few years ago with her first novel (published when she was 24, I think), and I’ve been meaning for a while to pick up some of her stuff. Her On Beauty was on my amazon wish list, and Ashley got it for me for Christmas. It was a good book, though somewhat different from what I had expected based on comparisons of her work to other authors I like. It felt a bit like a modern day take on the old comedies of manners. I don’t mean to pigeon-hole Smith here in the almost patronizing way it’ll probably come off, but the book felt a bit like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility for the 20th century (which probably isn’t terribly flattering given that I find those sorts of books tedious and dull and light). And yet it wasn’t tedious or dull or light, and in fact, there was much to appreciate. Smith writes really great dialogue, and especially argument dialogue. So the book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was well-done enough that I decided to get her first novel, White Teeth. This I finished reading last night, and it’s the sort of book I expected based on what I had read about Smith. It was different than any of the old white guy fiction I’ve read, and it dealt with its subjects in what felt like really honest, informed ways across cultures, religions, races, genders, and ages. And it did so with wit and beauty and absurdity and sometimes sadness. On Beauty isn’t a book I’ll likely read a great many times in my life, but White Teeth I can imagine myself re-reading every few years, as I do with most of my favorites. (Uh, which is not to detract from the gift itself of the former book; had I not read that one, I might never have gotten around to reading the other.) If you happen to like reading contemporary literary fiction, this one should go on your list.

Next up I think is George R. R. Martin. I’ve never been much on sci-fi or fantasy, and I guess he’s a fantasy author. Three or four people have separately recommended him to me even knowing that I’m not much of a fantasy reader. M gobbles the stuff up, so I got her the first in his big series for Christmas, and she dug it and has since read the rest of the series that’s been published to date. She seems to validate what others have told me about him, so I’m thinking I might broaden my horizons a bit and see what I think of his books.

Against the Day

Just over four months ago, I finished Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and did a quick read of DeLillo’s Falling Man before taking on Pynchon’s latest, Against the Day. His very short The Crying of Lot 49 aside, this is the first of Pynchon’s book I’ve read in one go, if plodding through it over 4 months can really be considered a single go. I went through start to finish with no stamina-loss-related break, in any case. My slowness was the result primarily of a paucity of time to read for long at a stretch (that reality TV’s not gonna watch itself, you know). When you’re reading in 10- to 20-page increments, it’s hard to get through an 1,100 page book very quickly.

So, what did I think of it? I’m not sure. The first 700 or so pages were for the most part very engaging, and it’s the easiest long Pynchon I’ve read yet. Whereas GR was hard to follow a whole lot of the time, AtD was pretty manageable. The next 300 pages were harder to get through because the dominant plot line just wasn’t as interesting to me as some of the others. As Pynchon closes up the book (which he really does with more tidiness than I might have expected) in the last 85 or so pages, it’s a more fun read again, though not nearly as much so as earlier parts of the book. I guess I liked it well enough. Although it’s physically heavier, it didn’t feel as content-weighty to me as GR did. Something about it doesn’t seem as important to me as GR did, though I can’t articulate what the difference is or why GR has a feel of importance (maybe I’m swayed by its having won an award?). I’m sure my enjoyment/slogging ratio in AtD was higher than it was in GR, but GR I think is the better book.

One thing that really hit home for me during this read was a difference in the way I appreciate certain books. Some authors or books make me wish the whole time I’m reading them that I were able to go out and write long fiction. They inspire creativity in me. Steinbeck in his best books and Richard Powers in The Time of Our Singing make me feel this way. An author like Pynchon doesn’t. I appreciate the complexity in his books, but they don’t inspire me to want to do my own creation. Both sorts of appreciation are valuable to me; too much of the former would continuously highlight my personal creative deficiencies and make me feel like crap all the time.

I’ve been pushing really hard for the last week or so to get through to the end of AtD because I’m traveling a week from today and didn’t want to have to carry that brick around with me the whole time. Now I’m off to do what I predict will be reading of a lighter style in Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. I’m also picking through Best American Nonfiction for 2007 (edited by David Foster Wallace, one of my faves). From there who knows? Maybe the book-length study of Wallace’s Infinite Jest that should arrive in 30 days or maybe another reread of the subject of that study. Maybe back for a second shot at Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Zadie Smith and Gass are on my wish list, so maybe they’ll round out my year. Or more likely I’ll punctuate hours and hours of TV with the occasional batch of poems or shorter fiction. Recommendations always welcome.

Falling Man Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a pretty deflating review of DeLillo’s Falling Man. Last Saturday evening, I myself fell down the last four or five of our stairs and banged my left big toe up. Whether or not it was actually broken or just cracked or had a bone bruise or whether I’m maybe just a big old wuss is a matter best left to the doctor (whom I didn’t see fit to visit, as he’d at best have just given me a splint and happily charged me $300 for it). But I did that evening find myself visiting this very blog. As M glanced over and saw what was on my screen, she asked if I was updating my Falling Man entry to include an account of my own inadvertent portrayal of that character. That wasn’t my intention, of course, but her comment so amused me that I thought I’d make a note of it.


No, this is not some abstract rumination about poetry. It’s more a brief review/advertisement for the July/August 2007 volume of the venerable publication of the same name. It’s a really good read, from cover to cover, with very few exceptions. I often find much of the poetry between the covers of the magazine to be not exactly to my taste, but there was enough of a variety of form and semi-form and humor and literary reference and ingenuity in this issue that even where things weren’t precisely to my taste, my overall judgment of this issue’s poetry was one of approval.

Particular favorites were Joan Murray’s parodies of Yeats and Hopkins, of which I’ll quote the latter in full (minus special Hopkins accent marks) until somebody tells me to take it down:

Brush and Floss: To a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Since your gums are not yet teething?
Teeth, all the ones you lost, you
Miss, especially those front two?
Ah! as the mouth grows older
It will earn a dental folder
Year by year, nor shed a tear
Though mounds of molars disappear;
And yet your mouth will gape in fear.
Oh the horror! child, the pain,
Though dentists jab novocaine,
Nor mouth knows, no nor gums, can say
The last laugh of tooth decay:
It is dentures man was born for,
It’s your baby teeth you mourn for.

I also really liked poems by Todd Boss, of which one, in excerpt, follows (it’s one of those annoying poems whose title is also the first line, but in this case, I forgive it):

How Smokes the Smolder

at neck, at
shoulder, that

stokes a man
as he grows

older. Nothing
rages, nothing

fumes, No one
races through

the rooms,
alarmed. How

It goes on like that for another dozen lines or so, just yanking you down the page in these staccato phrases packed with oddly laconic but visually rich description. It’s really good stuff, really different than a lot of the abstract, boring stuff I’ve read in the pages of Poetry.

I can’t help myself. Another one, in its entirety, from X.J. Kennedy (spacing screwed because I’m too lazy to make it work, though the spacing makes it better):

Blues for Oedipus

Oracle figured
You’d come a cropper,

Gods dished you the shit
Like you deserves —
Now your eyeballs
From they optic nerves.

The prose in this edition is good as well. Many bemoan the space the magazine has dedicated to prose and to letters to the editor over the last couple of years, but I’ve really enjoyed this shift (if only because the poetry often escapes me). One thing I really liked the concept if not the execution of in this issue was a brief Q&A with poets about particular poems. There are a half dozen or so of these scattered throughout the issue, and I only wish the editors had selected better poems to publish and do the Q&A on. Still, the idea of an occasional Q&A interests me.

The issue includes funny story/essay things by Naeem Murr (a probably at least partially fictive memoir-type thing about life as a novelist dating a poet) and Michael Lewis (a faux diary entitled “Poetry In Motion: A Diary of the Collapse of the 2006 New York Giants” that’s funny enough to merit a few quotes below; it’s told from the perspective of a presumably fictive Giants trainer).

I lingered outside long enough to hear Eli [Manning] say, “I’m not saying poetry will make us a better football team.” I’m saying it will make us a more meaningful football team.

Finally! I whispered to myself, a little fire! But instead of throwing punches, they just jabbered away at each other. Words, words, words. I didn’t understand all of what was said but one of the assistant coaches filled me in later. It started when Plaxico refused to rhyme or scan, and our center Shaun O’Hara called him “a narcissist who fails to grasp the artistic power of constraints.” That led all the receivers — even Shockey! — to get pissed off. They gathered into a little group in the end zone and mocked the sonnets the O-line has been working on. The O-line screamed that pentameter was the natural length of a spoken English sentence; the receivers screamed back that pentameter was for fat guys who are easily winded and that the poet in peak condition spoke hexameter, if not octameter.

The defense met to talk about their fourth-quarter collapse. One of the coaches asked Mathias what the fuck he was thinking when he just let go of Vince young. “Coach,” says Mathias, “I couldn’t help it. Just when I grabbed hold of him, a clerihew popped into my head.”…

Vince Young
Your Fu is not yet Kung
Your hop ain’t hip, your juke don’t jive
I’m gonna eat your rookie ass alive

It’s hard not to quote the whole fake diary.

One more rave before I close this out. The issue includes a set of mini-essays entitled collectively “Poets We’ve Known,” of which my favorite was a little piece by Sven Birkerts about informal joke-telling gatherings in Boston of Walcott, Heaney, and Brodsky that itself includes most of a joke that made me laugh out loud and try to re-tell it immediately to M. Then there’s a little essay by recent newsmaker Christopher Hitchens about meeting Auden’s partner shortly after Auden’s death. James Merrill’s former trainer writes to talk about what it was like to guide Merrill through his workout. The only essay I’d remove from the set is by Joseph Epstein, who laments the self-absorption of poets before going on to drop names and establish himself as part of the literary elite as he makes his way through an otherwise pleasant encomium to John Frederick Nims.

And did I mention poems by Edward Hirsch, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, W.S. Merwin, John Updike, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Wrigley?

All in all, definitely worth picking up at your local library, if your library happens to carry it, Possibly even worth $5.00 for a back issue.

On the whole, I’ve really liked what Poetry has become over the last few years. The editors seem to be trying to promote a diversity of style and content while engaging the magazine’s audience by accepting and publishing letters to the editor. The annual translation issue is always a treat, as is the annual humor issue. The editors also seem to be interested in hearing new voices. For the next two or three months, they’re considering submissions only from poets previously unpublished within their pages.

Every time a new issue comes in, I’m glad I’ve subscribed.

Falling Man

Just finished reading Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. A decade or so ago, I got hooked on the work of one David Foster Wallace, and in one of his essays, he mentions DeLillo as an influence. He’s also corresponded with DeLillo, who is sometimes listed as one of DFW’s literary forebears. When I learned about all this, I naturally went out and read a few books by DeLillo. First was White Noise, which was great (the kind of book you push on your friends). Then I read a couple of his other shorter books and was less than impressed. They felt sort of soap-opera-y and just didn’t interest me much. I later picked up Underworld and was captivated at once by the opening scene from a baseball game, which felt really authentic and exhilarating. Maybe halfway through that tome, I lost interest and put it down, and I sold the book when we were downsizing our library in anticipation of a move last year. I’ve since read some comments that make me want to pick it back up; maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake. Anyway, when I learned a couple of months ago that DeLillo had a new one coming out, I was interested in giving him another go, so I got Amazon to send it my way.

After the gripping first three-and-a-half page chapter, the book is mostly boring for the rest of the remaining 242 pages. It lapses into the blah melodrama (meloblahma?) of some of DeLillo’s other short work, and I have a hard time caring about the main characters’ emotional ties to one another and to others around them. With the exception of the parts of the book that dramatize events from September 11 and scenes of a performance artist who flings himself from high places and assumes the position of a person caught on film falling from one of the towers, Falling Man feels like the same old stuff of his I read and disliked years ago, aloof descriptions of people behaving in ways they maybe shouldn’t. Why should I read about this kind of stuff when I can just watch Days of Our Lives and check my email at the same time on top of it?

DeLillo does take some breaks from being dull to consider some fairly interesting things. He writes of Alzheimer’s and exercises performed by some of that disease’s afflicted of trying to write down their memories, for example, and the desire of these sufferers to clutch their memories tightly contrasts nicely with the inability of the rest of us to divest ourselves of the memories and images (e.g. that of the falling man that inspires the book and its performance artist) of an event like the collapse of the Twin Towers.

There’s also much in the book of ritual and its meanings and motiviations and their relationship to particular actions. Considered in the context of destructive religious fervor, this is fairly compelling.

I found myself wishing DeLillo had found ways to flesh out these themes in more subtle and broadly engaging ways rather than doing partial character studies of people whose uninterestingness is painful and whose interactions are classic (to me, at least) bad DeLillo.

I had hoped the book would break my heart.

I’m not sorry I read Falling Man, but it wasn’t a hard enough book (it didn’t require much of a cerebral investment at all, and this from somebody who wrinkles his brow aplenty) or a baseline beautiful enough book for me to forgive its imperfections, and it puts me in some doubt as to whether I should bother re-buying Underworld. It surely makes me look forward to diving into Pynchon’s Against the Day (I read the opening section the other day and it was marvelous), which, love it or hate it or (more likely) not understand the hundredth part of it, will be one helluva ride and anything but boring.