Poirot and Holmes

For the whole of my kids’ lives, my wife and I have read aloud to them. They’re about 3 years apart, so for a few years, we split the kids up and read littler kid stuff to my son and bigger kid stuff to my daughter. I’ve tended to prefer to read things at a level above what I’d expect my kids to understand on their own, and I explain and we talk things through as needed. This is fun sometimes, like when you’re reading the Bobbsey Twins to your 4 or 5 year old and are confronted with explaining not only things like what Obsidional coins are, but also what veiled racism and unfortunate parody of stereotypes and entrenched classism are.

As my son got a little older, we were able to read more together as a family rather than splitting up. We’ve read things like the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Prydain Chronicles, and lots of other stuff. It’s a family activity that we all look forward to, and reading aloud to my kids is one of my very favorite things to do.

A couple of years ago, when we had exhausted a lot of the books I was willing to read and were looking for something classic, I decided to try some Sherlock Holmes. We got a collection of Doyle’s stories and novels and dug in. My son was less interested than my daughter, though he hung on through a couple of novels and a number of stories, but eventually my daughter and I split the Sherlock stories off and read those together separately from the family reading.

They’re kind of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are really neat, but others you read and feel just kind of meh about. As with the Bobbsey Twins books, there are some anachronisms that need explaining, and there’s the occasional drug use (Holmes liked cocaine) to talk about, not to mention lots of murder. Mostly we’ve enjoyed the experience of reading about Sherlock, though.

Having exhausted most of those, we this year decided to give Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories a try. I had never read anything at all by Christie. We were struck right away by how similar the Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson setup and dynamic are. The stories are darned near interchangeable if you just swap the character names out and substitute in some of Sherlock’s stock phrases for some of Poirot’s French phrases. In one of the stories we read last night, Christie makes a direct reference to Holmes, which was kind of neat to encounter. We’ve read a half dozen or so of the Poirot stories, and on the whole, I think I’ve enjoyed the Sherlock stories more, but there’s plenty more Poirot to read, and there’s been plenty to enjoy in what we’ve read of Poirot (I especially liked “Wasp’s Nest,” which we read last night).

It did my heart good that last night, I offered to turn on a Doctor Who episode we haven’t watched yet, and my son cried out for a Poirot instead. I’d still like to watch the Doctor Who, and so would the kids, but I’ll favor falling into a book over staring at a screen 100% of the time.

Book Shelf

I read a post this morning by a friend in which she included a photo of one of her book shelves laden with books by an author whose work we both admire. I didn’t have a particular post in mind for the day (if you’ve been seeing this sudden uncharacteristic surge of posts over the past 10 days, you may be unsurprised to learn that I’m sort of quietly participating in a challenge to write a post a day this month, and you may also be relieved to learn that my gumption is not likely to outlive this month), so I figured I’d post a picture of my book shelf.

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We have another set of shelves in the bonus room that houses my kids’ books (they have more than I do these days, or very nearly so) and my wife’s books. This shelf sits behind me in my office, and just about every other time I have a video chat with coworkers who haven’t seen the shelves before, somebody does sort of a doubletake and asks whether their eyes are deceiving them or whether my books are arranged by color. And, well, yes, they sort of are.

I used to organize them mostly at random, with little pockets of order. Amid the randomness you’d find all of the David Foster Wallace grouped together, and you’d find most of the slim books of poetry (now relegated to a stealth row behind the fiction) grouped together. Random shelving is easy to add books to without much fuss, and I always liked having to scan the whole shelf to find a particular book I had in mind, which often enough would remind me of something else I wanted to dip back into.

It was a few months ago that I decided to rearrange more or less in a spectrum. I forget what made me decide to do it. I think I just wanted the shelves to be pretty while retaining some measure of organization that was random in terms of book content. Chaos has already begun to set in. I’m out of room for reds and oranges and yellows and too lazy to shift the whole shebang, so here and there you can spot within or atop the shelves little flashes of bright horizontal color from a book slid in on top of the others. Some books are new and haven’t been shelved at all yet (these mostly lie on top of the shelves). I got rid of a bunch of books to free up the bottom shelf for storage of other things, and the result so far isn’t very pretty. Near bottom left are cookbooks, arranged in a more orderly fashion because even a weirdo needs some measure of pragmatism here and there.

On top of the shelves you’ll see three globes, the early members of a collection my wife is slowly building. One of the globes wears a pirate hat and wig that a coworker sent me; the companion parrot hat lies nearer the opposite ends of the shelf. At bottom right, too big to fit in any of the compartments, is my OED.

Although it has always pained me to get rid of books (I used to have a lot more than this), I’m finding myself more capable lately of paring the collection down a bit. Most of the books pictured here are ones that I really treasure or would like to read again one day (or at least have on hand for occasional reference). Whereas my collection used to be largely provisional, containing lots of things I thought I might read one day or that I just picked up used on a whim, I’ve read probably 95% of these (putting cookbooks aside) and figure they’re important enough to me that I’ll one day regret not having them on hand. I have a nasty habit of selling back a book I think I’ll never need again and then needing it desperately again within the month; I’ve bought back my own books from the used bookstore more than once.

Poems

Yesterday was a day of unexpected poetry for me. I studied the stuff in college and wrote a book-length honors manuscript of poetry that mostly I choose these days not to think much about. I’ve been pretty disillusioned about poetry for a while, after years of reading contemporary poetry in magazines and finding it to be unsatisfying as a reader. Every once in a while, a bit of poetry pokes back into my life, though.

Last night, it was at the market — our local food cooperative, which I suppose isn’t quite the same as your typical Bi-Lo or Kroger. It’s staffed by people who strike me as hippies and hipsters and the odd grad student, perhaps one or two libertarians. They’re generally friendly in a way that seems more genuine than the dead-eyed “how are you today” I’m accustomed to receiving from the high school kid checking me out when I use one of the bigger grocery stores. (And little wonder, since the staff at the co-op are offered health benefits, a retirement plan, holidays, and I imagine something resembling a living wage vs. getting the stink-eye as they punch in for hours approaching full-time that would require the payment of such benefits. So to be clear, it’s not my intention to generalize about people who work at chain grocery stores but more to make an observation about the apparent quality of life and attendant cheerfulness of people who work at the co-op and how, you know, being a good employee is good for the world.)

Ahem. So, I was picking up a few things from the market and heard a cashier telling a customer about a persimmon poem. The customer was buying a persimmon and didn’t really know what to do with it, and the cashier reported that the poem offered some instructions. This made me think of a neat poem by Henry Taylor that explains how to eat an artichoke. I mentioned the poem to the cashier as I walked by, and since it wasn’t a busy night, he went hunting for it while I shopped. I picked up my little basketful of things and thought also of a poem about sweetbreads by Robert Wrigley, which I misremembered as having the line “neither sweet nor breads.” It turns out that I was wrong, and it’s an Ogden Nash poem that has a similar line. The Wrigley poem is a good one (one of many good ones; although I don’t often read poetry these days, I can usually dip into Wrigley and find something I’m glad to have read). By the time I returned to the front of the store to check out, the cashier had found the Taylor poem and I mentioned the sweetbreads poem too, and we had a nice little exchange about reading.

When I got home, I discovered my wife looking for a poem for a lesson plan she’s writing. So I went to the bookshelf and reached behind all the delicious fiction to the poetry I keep stacked in a second row behind the main attraction to pull out a few volumes. We looked at some Robert Morgan, some Michael Chitwood, some Wrigley, some Andrew Hudgins, and it was nice to revisit some of the dog-eared pages. I thought also of the old Auden poem that appeared so touchingly in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and that reminded me in turn of Conrad Aiken’s lovely “Music I Heard.”

It was nice to spend a few minutes dipping back into some familiar poems.

Riordan vs. Luhrmann

My daughter has read all (or perhaps all but the very latest) of Rick Riordan’s books that’re based loosely on various popular mythologies, and my son has by now read most of them. Among these are the books popularized in recent years in the form of movies pertaining to the central Percy Jackson character.

I’ve avoided reading more than brief snippets of the books, but my son’s 3rd-grade teacher recently asked if I’d be willing to give a Riordan mythology book a read to determine whether or not it’d be suitable to lend to 3rd-graders. Since this one — titled Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods — purports to be a more faithful retelling of the myths, she was worried that some of the content might be a little mature.

I cheerfully agreed to give it a try. It’s not a small book, and I got through about 100 pages before crying uncle. It’s about what I expected in terms of whether or not it’s appropriate for 3rd graders. There are some mature-ish topics mostly sort of danced around in a way that’s probably better for tweens than for the younger set but that I wouldn’t personally object to my son’s reading.

More troubling to me than these topics, which Riordan mostly handles in a reasonably oblique way, are instances of sexist language and attitudes. Of course, we’re reading about ancient Greek mythology here, and Zeus for example wasn’t exactly leading the march for women’s rights, so I don’t suppose I expected a feminist presentation of the old material. But Riordan has Percy as narrator use phrases like “chick magnet” and “had to get with her” and “screaming like little girls” and (with respect to women, though here inhabiting some god or another’s voice if I recall correctly) “take what you want,” and I feel like he could have offered the story in a voice like Percy’s without falling back to these sorts attitudes and language. In the summary I wrote for the teacher, I acknowledged that I was much more bothered by these slips than by Uranus jokes (which I find funny) and references to sex, murder, incest, etc.

I also just really hated the voice. The gimmick of the book is that Percy has been asked to tell what he knows about the old myths, so Riordan retells the myths in an annoying, sort of too-cool teenager voice that strikes me as not merely annoying but also inauthentic. I think it’s a condescending approach. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to the teacher about it:

My main objection to the book honestly is that it foregrounds Percy’s frankly sort of annoying voice and all but resorts to the use of text speak and emoji to strike a tone that ultimately deflates the richness of the stories being told. I wouldn’t forbid my kids to read this, but I’d probably give them a disclaimer that it’s a pretty low-calorie read and try to offset it with something more enriching and less condescending.

As I characterize the book in that way, I find myself thinking of Baz Luhrmann’s old Romeo and Juliet movie from the ’90s. It did something similar, providing a more modern and stylized take on the original play so that it was more thrilling and accessible than, say, the old Zeffirelli movie of the play or the text itself. And, well, I actually liked Luhrmann’s version a lot (I’m sure it had nothing to do with sort of a crush I had on Claire Danes at the time). So what’s the difference between what Luhrmann did then and what Riordan has done here? I’m not really sure. Luhrmann at least preserved most of the original text of the play, I suppose, so that the foregrounding of his stylistic choices was at least more firmly rooted in some of the original aesthetics and story structure. Maybe it’s that for all that Luhrmann modernized and stylized the play, he didn’t dumb it down, and I feel like Riordan dumbs things down a lot and sort of makes the dumbing down almost the primary focus. I’m not a fan of condescending to kids, and while I think it’s fair to help ease them into difficult things, I think there are better ways to do so than what Riordan does. Or maybe it’s that Luhrmann added actual beauty to the original whereas Riordan here adds only personality (and personality that I find annoying), so that it is strictly derivative and not meaningfully additive.

Later, I felt like my assessment had come off as kind of snobbish and had sort of missed the point, since the teacher was probably looking more for an assessment of appropriateness than for a more formal aesthetic or literary critique, so I talked to my kids about Riordan’s books and sent along another email, excerpted as follows:

As I reread my last note, I cringe at the realization of how pompous it comes off. I thought I’d back down from my snobbish attitude about it and see what my kids thought about Riordan compared to some other books like the Harry Potter series and books by Kate DiCamillo (e.g. Despereaux).

My daughter (11 years old) reports that Harry Potter is on a tier well above what Riordan writes, though she likes Riordan quite a lot because she finds him funny and finds the characters relatable (which is after all what Riordan’s going for, especially in this book).

Finn says that Riordan’s books are super mega awesome and that the Harry Potter series is super mega awesome and a half, which to him means just a little better (his grasp of fractions being apparently tenuous). Finn’s down on DiCamillo, though he forgets that he liked several of her books quite a lot when we read them to him a couple of years ago (my daughter rates DiCamillo’s books somewhat closer to Rowling’s books than to Riordan’s).

So, the children have spoken. Riordan’s aim seems to be to make mythology relatable to children, and it seems that he’s a success. I find what I’ve read of the books (bits and pieces mostly) annoying in the way, I suppose, that old people often find the younger set’s things annoying. Get off my lawn, etc.

Confronted with a child choosing between Rowling and Riordan, I would surely point the child toward Rowling, who I think writes in a less condescending and more sophisticated way, but I’d like to back away from my earlier assessment that I’d urge Riordan only to a child who otherwise wouldn’t read anything.

CSI: Cyber

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. Well, I do and I don’t. When I don’t, I don’t. When I do, I gulp it down. For example, last year, I watched all of The Wire over the course of a few weeks (maybe it was months?). I also watched all of Deadwood. I did the same with Battlestar Galactica a year or so before and recent Doctor Who the year before that. It’s vaguely cyclical. I’ll read books for a few months without even really glancing at the television for anything other than family movie/pizza night on Fridays, and then I’ll binge watch something, or a few somethings.

This year, I’ve recorded more reading in the first 5 months than I did in all of last year, and I had thought that last year was a pretty good year for me. But I’ve still mixed in a little TV over the past few months, mostly episodes of Castle (which is so endearing and funny) and of CSI: Cyber, the latest variant of the long-running CSI franchise.

It turns out to be a ridiculous show, but one I’ve not been able to resist because computer stuff is sort of in my wheelhouse. I’ve often wondered how much shows like that fudged (or, to be charitable, simplified) facts about the various disciplines they incorporate. I don’t know anything real about forensics, for example, and I’ve often suspected that when we hear on television about blood spatter patterns and other more technical things, we’ve been fed lies (or, to be charitable again, we’ve been fed palatable but quite lame simplifications of the truth). I’ve wondered if doctors and morgue techs didn’t sit at home and chuckle about the absurdity of these shows.

Well, now that there’s a show about computer stuff that makes a fair amount of sense to me, I can confirm that we’re all being lied to. I mean, we all know this to a degree. There’s an interview with Sandra Bullock about her appearance in The Net in which she says that she was typing all kinds of personal catharsis that made her look like quite the hacker indeed but that a program was making the hackerish things appear onscreen. Well of course it was. Typing is hard even when you’re not being filmed, and of course an actor couldn’t be expected to frenzy-type hacker stuff in real-time. I typoed while typing that typing was hard. Take a movie like Swordfish that depicts hackers as people who chug caffeine and can high-five one another while hacking whatever insanely secure system on a deadline and under extreme duress. There are probably cases in which this sort of behavior is what happens in the real world, but I don’t feel like they’re terribly common. (Let it be known: You cannot open some magical window on your computer and type “filter by credit card to show purchases on August 23 between $23 and $98 by people 28 years or younger” and actually get results (and a color-coded map of relevant area stores). Extracting data (and especially data across many sources) is really hard.)

CSI: Cyber gives us a fair amount of this sort of theater. You have your stereotypical fat bearded white-hat hacker working for the government and plenty of other socially maladjusted hacker types who perpetrate internet crimes for various reasons. Then you have what I suppose is sort of the manic pixie dream girl version of a hacker, with dyed hair often knotted up on top of her head in cute little horns. Then you have this strange little dapper black-hat-reformed hacker working out penance and being the figure of redemption. And there’s The Biscuit from Ally McBeal, and Patricia Arquette reprising her role from Medium, but instead of being a psychic, she’s a psychologist who can intuit truth from eye and hand movements of the people she casually observes during interviews. And also she goes into dangerous situations with a gun. And then there’s Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, sort of the beefcake who sort of maybe sometimes when it’s convenient knows stuff about computers but is mostly just the vaguely tragic muscle of the show (he has aged quite nicely, to be fair).

Of the various CSIs I’ve watched, CSI: Cyber seems definitely the weakest. I sort of want it to succeed because I think it’s actually a potential vector for teaching people about the various dangers of being online (though also: it’s also maybe sometimes sort of alarmist; probably nobody will steal your baby by hacking your baby monitor). But I think there’s so much that’s bad about it besides the ways in which they oversimplify the computery bits (which, let me say, I laugh out loud a couple of times an episode at how they show fragments of html or silly bits of pseudocode scrolling by, and I sort of wish I could be a code writer for the show and do my own special brand of trolling in these bits).

The show is badly dramatized. They’ve sort of blown their wad in season one with respect to the arc that is supposed to justify the Arquette character’s involvement. And honestly, her character is probably the weakest in the show. She’s the human element, but her story and Arquette’s portrayal of the character is at various times so wooden and near-mystical as to make it impossible to sympathize with her or to believe her as a person who interacts with other people as written.

The show has been picked up for a second season, and honestly, I’m surprised. I’ll probably keep watching, if only for the comedy of the failure of the seriousness with which the show proceeds. Probably I should read a good book instead.

A Bad Problem to Have

I tend to be a little skeptical when a celebrity not known as a literary author comes out with a book or appears in a literary magazine. For the poetry of Jewel and T-Boz, or of Jack Palance (who gave a reading from his poems at my college years ago) I had very low expectations. These were clearly vanity publications. So when I recently saw that B.J. Novak, known primarily for his work on The Office, was this month’s author in one story and that in fact he had a collection of short stories coming out of which “A Good Problem to Have” was a member, I worried a little. Was one story — almost certainly my favorite of all the magazines I’ve subscribed to in the last decade — selling out by putting a non-literary celebrity’s name on their cover?

Anecdotally, there’s a little detail that lends some credence to the idea: Consider the end matter for the issue:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 39 December 30, 2013. ONE MORE THING by B.J. Novak. Copyright 2014 by B.J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Now compare that with the prior month’s copyright notice:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 38 December 2, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jen Fawkes. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to One Story, 232 Third Street, #A108, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

I thumbed through a handful of a dozen or so issues from the past year or so and found that almost without fail, the end matter read much more like the latter, with credit given to the author rather than a publishing house. This gels with the way that magazine publication often (not always) works. An author has a story accepted for publication at a magazine and only later assembles a group of stories into a collection for publication in book form, so that when the magazine publishes the story, the copyright notice lists the author rather than the publisher or a book title. So a copyright notice that lists a major publishing house and a book title is something of an anomaly in my recent experience with one story. This becomes important, so hang onto the fact for a moment.

Among the last dozen or so issues, there is one other exception to one story‘s usual copyright notice. In issue number 183, a story by the well known Elizabeth Gilbert is cited as an excerpt from her book The Signature of All Things. Gilbert announces her publication in one story here, and interestingly, she’s friends with the publishers and is listed in the magazine’s end matter as a sponsor. I’m not suggesting timely impropriety here; she’s listed as a sponsor going back well before her publication. Still, in two recent cases, we have celebrity status figures (vs. just well-known writers) headlining one story just as they have new books coming out. It smells just a little bit of large press sponsorship to me. Is it possible that Knopf and Viking have given one story money to shill for the well known authors of forthcoming books?

If so, I honestly have mixed feelings. It takes money to run magazines, and it’s clear from the donation and subscription solicitations I keep getting from one story that they’re not exactly rolling in dough. So on the one hand, who’s to blame the magazine if a Knopf or a Viking comes along with a fistful of cash in exchange for publication of the authors of reasonably good stories?

But on the other hand, what happens if the story quality suffers and the magazine begins to lose credibility as a source for good literature? I thought Gilbert’s story was pretty good. I knew Gilbert only because I had heard of the movie adaptation of her Eat, Pray, Love, and my expectations weren’t very high. I was pleasantly surprised by her story. When I saw Novak’s name on the cover of the magazine, my knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes. Surely this guy was a hack, and with a new book coming out, gracious me, was it possible that my favorite little magazine was selling out? But Novak’s not just a comedian. He studied at Harvard and had writing and producer credits on a very funny, popular television program. He is not without talent. I was skeptical but open-minded.

And boy was I pleased when I started reading his story! It centered on a very clever sort of creation story behind the old math problem about two trains traveling toward one another at different speeds. It was funny and had some heart. It was well written and had the promise to be a really fantastic story. And then it ended abruptly with a feeble callback to a statement made earlier in the story and with all its goodness left unrealized on the table.

A story as good as what I’m accustomed to reading in one story would have pretty well put aside my worries about what was beginning to seem like an occasional bit of quid pro quo with publishers who might be in a position to help a little magazine out (and again, who could blame the long-suffering magazine?). But I don’t think Novak’s story should have made the cut. Or, it had plenty of potential but needed a lot of editing before making the cut.

Of course, there’s the problem. Think back to my description of the way magazine and book publication often work. Vetting by magazines happens first, and the books that stories ultimately make it into acknowledge the magazines for their initial publication of the work. Magazine editors have the opportunity to work with an author to polish a story and bring it up to snuff, and in fact, I’ve read accounts from one story authors describing how useful that process has been to the improvement of their work. I imagine this is a big part of why the stories in one story tend to be so consistently good.

But if a story is already ready for press in book form and the book publisher offers it to a magazine, it seems likely that the magazine will have a reduced privilege to make editorial suggestions. Of course, I don’t know anything at all about the life cycle of Novak’s story, but it’s hard for me not to think that because the piece made its unfortunately abortive way into a book and was then offered to the magazine, one story pretty much had to take it as it was, and as a result, the magazine this month featured an inferior story.

This all makes me feel pretty sad. For one thing, I think that with better editing and a jaunt through the usual publication meat grinder, Novak’s story might have been a great deal better. It could have been a wonderful piece, in his hands or the hands of another who’d thought it up and done it full justice. So there is a horrible waste at hand here. Skirting the standard editorial process here diminished his achievement. I also feel like Novak’s fame more than his ability may have played a role in his sudden publication of a book of unvetted stories. He reportedly got a seven-figure deal for the book this story will appear in and a second book. As far as I know, otherwise unproven authors aren’t generally entitled to such deals, so it’s hard to figure the deal arose from much beyond his reputation as a comedic actor and writer — which is fine but which doesn’t mean he’s entitled to a literary stage for ultimately sub-par work. And of course I mourn one story‘s involvement for two reasons. First, I hate that a quality magazine has to (if I have things right) make deals with publishers to peddle the work of celebrity authors with forthcoming books (as if taking money from amazon.com, which has done much to kill small presses, wasn’t indignity enough). And second, I’m sad that for the first time since I’ve been a subscriber (admittedly only a year or two), the magazine has published a prose story that I really thought wasn’t worthy of the magazine (and, worse, that it might have been).

I suppose I’ve offered qualifications enough, but just to be clear, I have no insight into what deals one story may have made with any publishing houses. I may be wearing a tin-foil hat, and everything herein that’s not verifiable should be considered utter speculation, the ravings of a crank. I actually really hope I’ve got a lot wrong, that somebody will tell me what I’m misunderstanding about Novak’s story that makes it great.

If there is something a little opportunistic going on here, it’s left me very much on the fence with regard to Novak. I sort of want to read his book, but I also really sort of don’t now. Maybe I’ll choose to believe that one story has had its cake and eaten it too here, benefiting from a sort of payola while sending a coded message to its discriminating readers, by publishing a sub-par story, that the cited collection was not worth reading and the acceptance of the work one purely of financial necessity rather than a lapse in editorial judgment or a full-on sellout.

The End of the Tour

I spent some time today thinking and writing about the recently announced movie, entitled The End of the Tour, that will dramatize the events of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book is an edited transcript of a road trip Lipsky took with David Foster Wallace on the Infinite Jest book tour. I’ve written extensively about Wallace elsewhere and occasionally here.

One of the things I’ve struggled to remember when writing about Wallace was when exactly I first got my hands on Infinite Jest. Of course I knew it was in college over some Christmas break, but I couldn’t remember the year. Fairly recently, I was able to recover some ancient email archives, and today I thought to check for any references to the book therein. I found one!

The reference lies in an email to one Jim Standish, dated January 2, 1998. So I will have gotten the book at Christmas of 1997. The relevant passage goes as follows:

I had such high reading ambitions for the break. I got through some Milton, a smidge of Eliot, most of a book on WCW, a few of Pound’s poems, and a fair amount of his prose. But I was hoping to get through PARADISE LOST at least two times, and I only managed one reading. Plus there’s a book on Stuart England that I wanted to finish besides reading most of Eliot’s poetry. What sidetracked me was a literary Christmas. My sis gave me three small books about language, two of them more glossaries than anything else, and a big fat fiction book. She remarked that it seemed like all I ever read was literary stuff and she wanted to make me slow down for some contemporary fiction. The book is about 1100 big pages long (100 of ’em end notes in about 6 point font) and is called INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace. It’s been slow going, but worth it. I lack about 98 pages, and I’m pretty much in awe of the discipline required to put together such a complex work. Makes me feel inadequate for my struggles with coherent 18-line poems. So I’m glad to have been exposed to the book, but I hate that my academic reading’s been postponed.

Jim was a fellow I met on a Usenet group dedicated to poetry, which I was pretty into at the time. So the reading references may seem pretentious but were at least earnest and relevant, as Jim and I were in the habit of swapping reading lists and discussing what we were reading. I really enjoyed being pen-pals with him and have often regretted that our correspondence petered out not too long after I graduated. He was old — apparently sort of a long-time staple in the Stanford poetry scene — and died sometime in the five years or so following my graduation.

I write about this discovery in my email trove so that I can get back to it easily the next time I find myself wondering when exactly it was that I first picked up Infinite Jest.

Joyce Carol Oates's Frost

The November edition of Harper’s included a story by Joye Carol Oates entitled “Lovely, Dark, Deep” that has had many in a bit of an uproar. If you’ve retained much of what you read in high school or college English, you’ll recognize the story title as a borrowing from a line of Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The story grips you right away, bringing you in as a voyeur as you join an interviewer who comes across the venerated man himself asleep and in disarray, and very human (which is hard to imagine of the famous). Frost bloviates and insults the female interviewer, even makes sexual innuendoes. He says predictable, rehearsed things he’s said in a thousand interviews, shows no little degree of hubris, and winds up showing himself to be ruthless and un-self-aware.

Toward the end of the story, the first-person narrator, whose boldness has grown during the story to the point that she ultimately begins needling Frost aggressively, turns into a third-person narrator. By the very end, she has disappeared altogether, leaving Frost stumbling around the yard jabbering to himself about demons until he falls and is collected by others on the grounds of Breadloaf who find him there. Notably, he has by this time begun expressing some self-doubt; he’s not a changed man by any stretch of the imagination, and he continues to puff himself up a bit as well, but there is at least a sense of rue, an acknowledgment perhaps of fallibility that has so far been missing.

The story, offered as the fiction it clearly is but citing some controversial biographical work on Frost as source material, is about as far from a love song to Frost as you can get.

And of course many have jumped on Oates for writing the thing and on Harper’s for publishing it. I’ll confess that my own feelings when reading the piece ranged from a sort of voyeuristic and probably vulturish curiosity (maybe the author had had such an experience herself and had some dirt to dish on old Uncle Poet!) to indignation at his behavior, which seemed possibly at least partly based on facts, to pity. I’m not sure what to make of the story. I don’t think it’s strictly a revenge piece. If it were, why endow Frost with any humanity at all rather than making him a monster pretty much all the way through the piece? And why would Harper’s publish a revenge piece (unless it’s Lapham writing about a Republican or something)? But what to make of it?

For the moment, I’m giving Oates the benefit of the doubt. Consider the shift in point of view and the disappearance of the narrator by the end (I’m not left with the impression that she walked away so much as that she faded out of the story — that is to say that she didn’t in fact exist to begin with). Consider the fact that the story opens with Frost asleep and ends with him raving on the lawn, perhaps still waking from a tormented sleep. For me, the story works pretty well as a plumbing of the old subconscious. When alone with our thoughts, we think and give mental (if not physical) voice to things we would never say aloud. We may puff ourselves up a bit about our accomplishments or linger on dirty jokes or less than flattering or chaste thoughts. Sometimes we’ll think about our failings. As often as not, we’ll start with puffery and end in doubt and despair.

So maybe it makes sense to think of the story as a portrayal of a great and probably misunderstood man grappling in a troubled sleep toward the end of his life with his successes and his regrets, with how they fit together. It’s a topic worth writing about, however controversial it may be when presented in a way that’s reasonably interpreted as a sort of defamation. But maybe that’s part of the point too. Even the greatest among us, and so on.

Borges, Collected Fictions

Borges, Collected FictionsSome books you can’t make yourself put down, and others you can’t make yourself pick up. Gass’s The Tunnel ruined reading for me for months because I didn’t feel like I could read anything else until I finished it, and I couldn’t bear to read much of it at a time. Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions I carried around like some sort of a curse for a couple of weeks. These are books that you feel like you ought to read, that you know people admire, that you really do want to get through, that you know are probably good for you, but that just don’t do it for you.

I finally finished the Borges today and really don’t understand the fascination people have for him. His is a name you hear with awe and respect. I had meant to read him for years and was finally nudged into doing so upon reading several references to him in a John Barth essay collection recently. The Barth also nudged me to read Don Quixote, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Thousand Nights and a Night, which will take a good long time but which I’m digging. So I was optimistic about Borges.

His stories seem to take a few forms:

  • History (usually about gauchos or knife fighting or Argentenian politics) retold.
  • Revenge plots (some overlap with the history here).
  • Brief philosophical or mystical musings that fall really flat.
  • Fantasies.

The first three varieties generally don’t much interest me. I don’t have a head for or a particular interest in history or politics, and though the knife-fighting gauchos make for an occasional fun (if oddly subdued) read, I don’t need a dozen of them. The fantasies, and particular those that touch on the infinite and on doubling, are the stories that required less of a stiff upper lip for me to get through. Even those sometimes Borges delivers in a way that winds up feeling sort of deflated. He’s a master of telling a story and then adding a punchy closing line that wrecks the whole thing. In the shorter mystical pieces, he has a way of making simple statements about things and then adding a feeble flourish that seems designed to make you think the story is deep, but to me, it comes off pretty badly, as if he’s a magician doing the thumb-removal trick we all learned as kids and finishing with a big “ta-da” and a deep bow. His tricks, in other words, don’t merit nearly the response he seems to expect. It’s pretty annoying.

The later work appealed to me more than the earlier work, as evidenced by the sharply increasing frequency of dog-eared stories toward the end of the book. I dog-eared nothing until nearly halfway through the book, when I was struck by “The Zahir.” Others that I liked to some degree or another include the following:

  • The Aleph
  • The Interloper
  • The Encounter
  • The Gospel According to Mark
  • Brodie’s Report
  • The Other
  • The Book of Sand
  • Blue Tigers

The penultimate collection, The Book of Sand, is the strongest in the book.

A few references in Barth’s book aside, I’ve studiously avoided reading any criticism or even biographical information about Borges in hopes that I could form my own opinion unsullied. My opinion’s obviously not very high. I’ll be curious now to read a bit to discover all the ways in which my opinion is ill-informed and unjust; I’m sure there must be much to Borges that I’m missing. He seems to have been an awfully smart man, just not one whose fictions struck me in general as being as great as a whole as I gather they’re trumped up to be. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll likely revisit a few of those dog-eared pieces. I’m also glad to be done with the book and eager to move on.

Style and Cleverness

Over the last couple of nights, I’ve learned something about my reading preferences. For a long time, I’ve held that I don’t have much interest in things like character and plot. I’m drawn much more to the way in which the words are put on the page or in there being something innovative about the approach. Even innovation itself isn’t a first concern for me. For example, while I sort of enjoyed House of Leaves, I found it more annoying than likable; innovation of its sort doesn’t appeal to me. Similarly, while I find Cloud Atlas‘s nesting of genre, time, and characters pretty fascinating, it’s really that amazing middle section with its distinctive style that floated my boat about Mitchell’s book.

So primarily, I’ve thought, it comes down to style. Write your book in lovely prose and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hook me. This may be part of why I’m no great fan of Franzen, for example. His prose tends to be more utilitarian, however well he attends with a comfortable sort of realism (some hold; I don’t) to the sorts of lives midwesterners live and how they endure crisis. I just read The Great Gatsby, and in spite of being prepared for a stinker of a story with dull characters, the style ran away with me and I deemed it a really solid book in spite of any of its other warts.

This week, I started reading The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (more widely known as The Arabian Nights), translated by Richard Burton. The book is sort of double-damned style-wise, since it’s both a translation and is translated in a suitably archaic style. I tend not to trust works in translation too much, figuring that it must be awfully hard to capture style in another language. How can I know that I’m reading anything resembling what the original author wrote? And if I’m looking for lovely or innovative formal things in Burton’s prose, well, it’s just not really there so far. It’s a pleasant translation, but it’s nothing to write home about in terms of pure style. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a 120-year-old translation of an ancient text.

But I’m really loving this book! I think we all probably have a general idea that the book is a series of Arabian tales, but I hadn’t known until I recently read some of John Barth’s glosses of it that it was a set of framed or nested stories in which a doomed concubine cleverly tries to avoid execution by her king by telling stories in which the characters often engage in similar life-saving cleverness of their own. And the heroes of these stories tell nested stories to boot. I think Barth wrote that the level of nesting in the book winds up going six or seven deep at some point.

So, with its fine but unremarkable style, what attraction can this book possibly have for a reader with an acknowledged lack of interest in matters of plot or character? Well, I guess it’s the cleverness, the playfulness. Come to think of it, the sense of play in Barth’s books is what keeps me coming back to them, even when I don’t love the story or his way of putting the words on the page. Well now I’m suffering a minor crisis of understanding: Is it style or cleverness that most drives my interest in a text? Is style perhaps merely a sort of cleverness? Maybe I’m trying to create a relationship here where none exists. At any rate, it’s fun to have discovered a book that confounds my sense of why I like the things I like, that makes me think about why I’m liking what I’m liking rather than just sticking to the pretentious old “blah blah style blah blah” story I’ve been hung up on for a long time now.