May 1, 2014

March/April 2014: WHEN SPRING DOESN’T COME, YOU STAY INSIDE AND READ, WITH OCCASIONAL TEARS

Books Bought

  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, bought new @Unnamable Books, Brooklyn, NY
  • A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for The Restless and The Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, bought new @ Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn NY
  • Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, bought new @ Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn NY
  • The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei, bought new @ The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

Books Borrowed 

  • The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon by Touré @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman @ Brooklyn Public Library

Books Read

  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman
  • The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
  • Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  • A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for The Restless and The Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
  • I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon by Touré
  • The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang
  • The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

On a still-cold morning in late April riding the 2 train to work, angled my head down steeply enough to hide the tears from my fellow commuters as I finished Meg Wolitzer’s enthralling The Interestings. I read this 500+ page book everywhere so invested was I in the characters. And why wouldn’t I be; the book is a bold treatise on the dangers of nostalgia, and the way it clouds, and eventually robs ones ability to see. To be honest I was a touch embarrassed to be so affected by a tome so big and brassy where the story, like all guilty pleasures, is neither surprising nor complex. But the craft of adding subtle details to infuse heart over the course of the characters lifetime is sublime, and I was hooked early and deeply. It takes no time at all to find out what you’re in for, when on page four young Julie becomes enmeshed with the title group of characters, and the author tells you exactly how this drama will play out for our protagonist:

"…here she was now, planted in the corner of this unfamiliar, ironic world. Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit. Soon, she and the rest of them would be ironic much of the time, unable to answer an innocent question without giving their words a snide little adjustment. Fairly soon after that, the snideness would soften, the irony would be mixed in with seriousness, and the years would shorten and fly. Then it wouldn’t be long before they all found themselves shocked and sad to be fully grown into their thicker, finalized adult selves, with almost no chance for reinvention."

This is an old-fashioned storytelling, with simple but hard truths keenly observed, and I found it full of charms. 

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P has been rightly praised by just about everyone, and I will happily join the chorus, as it stands as a type of time capsule for what it’s like to be a young, white, heterosexual man in New York City in the early 21st century. As all those things myself once, to call this book accurate is a maligning disservice; the book instead is more like a channeling. What I mean by that is that in trying to select a quote to exemplify the type of dead-on passages about romantic blunders that fill the book, I simply couldn’t decide on one because whatever the selection, I imagined one of my old lovers reading it and wondering why I had picked the passage about us. The portrayals are that familiar, the paths that universal. In recommending it, I worry that people will learn more about me than is comfortable, and that is a true feat of writing.

My tears returned while I was reading Annihilation because it was utterly terrifying. Yes, at my most frightened, when I feel the connective threads that ground us to reality easing and coming undone, I find a tear or two snaking down my cheek. Vandermeer’s slight book has a simple premise: an expedition, the 12th such undertaking, into Area X, a mysteriously empty, Edenic landscape. But there is a tricky, malevolent air that permeates the entire story:

"The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to the swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats…All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over than untroubled landscape, I do not believe that any of us could yet see the threat."

It’s a scary yarn well spun, the first of a trilogy, and I’ve already put in a request at the library for the next one. 

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t offer praise for the enchanting parable of The Good Thief, the playful Geoff-Dyer influenced wanderings captured in A Sense of Direction, and the occasional freaky tidbit conveyed in I Would Die 4 U(what is with the bath treatments Prince?). It’s been an absurdly long hot streak of the right books at the right time (save for the unpleasant The Deep Whatsis) and I am thankful for the eternal winter if only for giving me that time to read.  

March 1, 2014

January/February 2014: ART MATTERS!

Books Bought

  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman, bought used @ sidewalk bookseller near W. 3rd and Mercer, New York, NY

Books Borrowed 

  • Countdown City by Ben H. Winters @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan, from my friend Rachel
  • The Constant Heart by Craig Nova @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner @ Brooklyn Public Library

Books Read

  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
  • Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
  • A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal
  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The most ballyhooed novel of 2013 was Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, where everyone is an artist. Reno, the young female protagonist is an aspiring artist; Sandro, her older Italian boyfriend is a successful artist; Ronnie Fontaine, the most intriguing of the many characters is an emerging artist; even Giddle explains that she is a performance artist in her role as a coffee-shop waitress. Combined with motorcycles and land speed records, stories of Italy at the turn of the century and New York City in the 70’s, it’s an intriguing proposition, and sadly one that fails badly for the unlikeliest of reasons.

To begin with, it must be said that the praise for the book is understandable. From sentence to sentence Kushner is a great writer, subtle and precise, and she manages the time-shifting plot between characters with skill; there are set pieces and tiny passages of searing poignance here. And while numerous sections drag, that is not the fault to spoil the whole endeavor. Rather it is the portrayal of artists, and specifically of art and art making, that ruins everything. 

The ultimate fault is the book’s insulting dismissal of art. For example: Reno’s art is filming the events of the Lower East Side streets from her firescape. Sandro’s art is making empty metal boxes. Ronnie’s art is taking pictures while at the bar of women who punch themselves in the face. Giddle’s art is simply the performance of life. There are plenty of other artists in the book, and yet no one seems to work very hard, or really work at all. In fact, no one thinks about it, works at it, progresses from one idea to the next. This is the best that Reno can do when describing Sandro’s art: 

"Minimalism is a language, and even having gone to art school, I barely spoke it myself. I knew the basic idea, that the objects were not meant to refer to anything but what they were, there in the room. Except that this was not really true, because they referred to a discourse that artists such as Sandro wrote long essays about, and if you didn’t know the discourse, you couldn’t take them for what they were, or were meant to be. You were simply confused." (pg. 238) 

The characters’ standing as artists is something worn as nothing more than a cheap, gaudy accessory. 

Strangely, some reviewers seem to be enamored with the idea that the book is a giant, humorous send-up of the New York Art World, insisting that the book “is funny not at the expense of contemporary art but at the expense of the people who make that art, seeing with clear eyes their bluster and pantomime.” (1) But bluster and pantomime both cover and represent something. Of course the art world can operate cruelly and without apparent reason, but ultimately there are always people, the arbitrarily-assigned successes and failures, who are putting in hours, days, and eventually years of long, hard work. Even if their product is horrible, there is a process, guided by a yearning, an often ugly, desperate hope, that results in creation, in something. But here, we have a book where artists and their art only comes across as lazy and indulgent, characterized by nothing but a genuine lack of effort. For a book about artists ranging from the Italian Futurists of the 1910’s to the American conceptual artists of the 1970’s, that’s a serous problem. 

This careless dismissal of art and the artist results in a story that is never able to mean much of anything, to the characters or the reader. The characters are just people to whom things happen, and by the time one arrives at the ambiguous conclusion, the ambitious tale seems merely depressing and hollow. Which begs the question, “what does it say about our culture that we like it so much?” (2)

(1) James Woods review: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/04/08/130408crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all

(2) Geoff Mak review: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/2013-review-rachel-kushners-flamethrowers-caleb-crains-necessary-errors#

January 1, 2014

November/December 2013: THE SWEET IDLENESS OF YOUTH

Books Bought

  • Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain, bought new @ St. Mark’s Bookstore, New York, NY
  • The Last Policemanby Ben H. Winters, bought new @ St. Mark’s Bookstore, New York, NY
  • About Yvonne by Donna Masini, bought used, somewhere; on an Upstate day trip perhaps

Books Borrowed 

  • NONE  

Books Read

  • Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
  • The Last Policemanby Ben H. Winters
  • About Yvonne by Donna Mason

Necessary Errors is bewilderingly great. Bewildering because in the yarn of a 24-year old American teaching English in Prague, it is not the plot or the situations that enthrall. Rather it’s the frequent, deceptively astute insights about what it is like to be young, aimless, and hopeful. Lucid and affecting passages like this, about drinking with a friend on a short weekend trip to Krakow, abound.

"They were nearing the end of their first round, which they always drank more quickly than those that followed, and which they hardly felt except in the way one feels the looseness in a boat that has been untied from its mooring but has not yet left it. A silence fell over them, a part of the rhythm of their conversation, and Jacob watched Annie absentmindedly tug the long sleeves of her sweater up around her fists, leaving out only a fork of two fingers to hold her cigarette. At the bar, a couple of Czech boys were half dancing to the almost inaudible punk rock, in the convulsive, somewhat self-parodying style appropriate to the genre. The dancing boys’ bangs shook and tossed, obscuring their eyes. Perhaps there were good things in Krakow, Jacob thought. In any case, Annie was right to want to make the most of their time here, which was never going to come back.” (pg. 300)

Just underneath the din, of evenings spent carousing in bars and days exploring the city, hums the thrill and fear of longing; for meaning, for inspiration, for direction, that afflicts Jacob and his time-bound friends. And with the lightest of touches, the story is deeply heartfelt, truly memorable, and unexpectedly brilliant. As it is in this passage, the greatest falling-down-drunk meditation of the 21st century, which begins with the two characters inexplicably bellowing “meat with cinema.” 
"Henry seized Jacob by the arms, and the two of them fell down together, Henry taking most of the blow, but one of Jacob’s elbows flowering in pain, though the pain seemed to be happening to another person. As they fell, Jacob thought:  Oh this is silly and grandiose, and I would never be so taken with it if I weren’t drunk and Henry weren’t my friend, but I am and he is and I understand what he means. His meaning, which he didn’t speak- Jacob intuited it as if a language teacher had acted it out instead of translating it- was that the two of them weren’t in fact falling; they were merely disregarding the world; the accident and pain were incidental to the establishment of an axis between them that was, for the moment, distinct from the world’s and untethered from it, drifting separately. For the moment they were taking a path of their own, and if the floor of the apartment happened to fall up and hit them while Henry was shouting his communication, while he was trying to persuade Jacob to hear it, to really hear what he was trying to say, then it was no more than a sign of the reality of their independence. The pain in Jacob’s elbow seemed far away; the only sensations near him were the words, the repeated words, Henry trembling as he shouted them, Jacob crouching and wincing against them almost in Henry’s arms. This was abandonment, Jacob thought, this feeling right now; this was what it felt like to be cut free.” (pg. 369)
The entire book serves as a trance, or perhaps an enchantment that reminds us of the way time and intention and aspirations felt as they came into our mind and body for the first time as an autonomous adult, and the way that freedom is both a unexpected burden, and a luscious gift.  

November 1, 2013

September/October 2013: MEN’S AND WOMEN’S MEMOIRS: ATTEMPTS TO JUSTIFY THEIR LOVE

Books Bought

  • Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, Book One by Lian Hearn, bought used @ Beacon Reads, Beacon NY
  • Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters and Wild Nature by Gary Thorpe, bought used @ Aardvark Books, San Francisco CA 
  • Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg, bought used @ Pegasus Books, Oakland CA

Books Borrowed 

  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed @ Brooklyn Public Library 
  • Kook by Peter Heller @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • The Grievers by Marc Schuster
  • I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Norman Howard @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust
  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan @ Brooklyn Public Library
  • Engaging the Disengaged by Lois Brown Easton, InterLibraryLoan  from Columbia University

Books Read

  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  • Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, Book One by Lian Hearn 
  • Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters and Wild Nature by Gary Thorpe
  • Engaging the Disengaged by Lois Brown Easton
  • Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust
  • Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

Stemming from the still-inexplicable passion in my mid-20’s to read memoirs by women in their mid-60’s (I adored Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life and Joan Anderson’s cult-favorite A Year by the Sea the most), these last two months I thought I would read a series of memoirs, this time by both men and women, and come to some sort of poignant insight about how contemporary memoirs operate and what the differences between sexes reveal. After reading four, my only thought is that women seem to have justify themselves a lot more than men. 

The women, Strayed and Lust, both travel, the first on the Pacific Coast Trail and the second to Italy, but both operate as book-length explainations for questionable behavior. Lust’s is a disturbing tale of walking away from home and living hard on the streets of Italy, while Strayed’s tale is an escapist account of her time hiking alone in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the breakthrough of Strayed’s hard-fought self-realization:

"What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?" (pg. 258) 

The men don’t ever try so hard. Thorne and Steinberg embark on much less ambitious quests, the former to see a mountain lion, the latter to work in a prison library, and the books chronicle their pursuits. Here is Thorne’s rationale for his book, arriving on the first page of the preface:

"One evening, not long after the six o’clock news had ended, I decided that I would go out and find a mountain lion." (pg. xiii)

In the same inconsequential way, Steinberg seems to simply fall in to being a prison librarian. 

"Then one day, while helping a sweet but disorganized young anarchist, a friend of the family, find a job, I came across an unusual ad on Craig’s List. It was brief: Boston, Prison Librarian, full-time, union benefits. I certainly hadn’t known that prisons hired full-time librarians. To me, libraries and prisons seemed like polar opposites. Perhaps even at cross purposes, like a pie-baking class at Marine boot camp. Something about it sounded fishy. Out of sheer curiosity I inquired about the job.”

Despite being 100 pages too long, it stands as the best of the very flawed bunch, not only because it reminds us that we build and populate hell-on-Earths on scant reasoning, but also because it shows us the human tragedies they create. The story of forlorn, window-gazing Jessica and her son, who is also in the same prison but has never even met his mother, will be with me for some time. As for my poignant insights: the women try harder than the men to justify their choices, especially with love, just like in real life. 

September 1, 2013

July/August 2013: I WISH I HAD COME UP WITH THE TERM NERGASM. 
Books Bought
  •  Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerbern, bought used @ Rivendell Books, Montpelier, VT
  • The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer, bought used @ some online bookseller where the shipping was more than the book. 
Books Borrowed 
  • Ready Player One by Earnest Cline @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY 
Books Read
  • Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerbern
  • The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie
  • Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
  • The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

Science-fiction writer John Scalzi has already penned the definitive accolade for Ready Player One, calling it a “nerdgasm,” and I certainly don’t have a descriptor ready to top that. Despite some simplistic writing and a painfully hetero-normative relationship at its core, the book is really a staggering achievement of 1980’s nostalgia and geeky fandom, and reading it was certainly a delightful, if guilty pleasure. For all you gamers out there, here is your literary power-up. 

If you want to feel terrible about yourself as an American, look no further than Neither Wolf Nor Dog, a surprisingly insightless tale of a white man  challenged with the task to write down a Native American’s life history. The 300+ pages boils down to this heartbreaking message: 

"For… the hunger to own a piece a land, we had destroyed the dreams and families of an entire race, leaving them homeless, faithless, and with nothing but the ashes of a once graceful and balanced way of life. And now we had the arrogance to "rediscover" them and appropriate the very spiritual truths we had tried to destroy, in order to fill the void of our own spiritual bankruptcy. I was filled with a helpless shame and contrition."     

Nerbern is very successful at making one feel the great suffocating weight of our genocidal legacy. But to what end? Just a simple admission of its existence it seems.   

Writing a blog about books gave me the gumption to buy a hard-to-find book on the internet, where I finally hunted down a copy of a older Geoff Dyer book. As my favorite contemporary writer, I was curious what his initial stabs at books were like. It doesn’t rise to the level of simple and painful poignancy as quickly or effectively as his other books, but the themes that will last his literary lifetime, art & writing & procrastination, are already present. Here’s a riff on friendship, with a number of controversial propositions:   

"I was still at that age when you do not form friendships but are formed by them, when there is no difference between having good friends and being a good friend… I hardly ever kept in touch with people for more than three years. After about three years of knowing a group of people your identity becomes fixed by their expectations, you become trapped by your shared history; your range of responses becomes more and more limited. After a certain point there’s no room for anything but the most gradual alteration to your identity. The past suffocates and restricts and the only way you can breathe and move again is with completely new circumstances, new people." 

Lastly and perhaps most surprisingly, I have no insight whatsoever about teaching and reading The Mousetrap in Abu Dhabi to a group of native Emirati high school students other than I was surprised by the reveal of the murderer, and so were my students. Agatha Christie: a classic is a classic I guess. 

July 1, 2013

May/June 2013: “MOST PEOPLE CONSIDER PROBLEMS WHOSE SOLUTIONS DON’T SUIT THEM TO BE INSOLUBLE.” - The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

Books Bought
  • The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, bought new @ Unnamable Books, Brooklyn, NY
  • The Venetian’s Wife by Nick Bantock, bought used @ Sturgis Library, Barnstable, MA
Books Borrowed 
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY
  • Mockingjayby Suzanne Collins @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY
  • The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY
  • The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY
  • The Name of the World by Denis Johnson @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY
Books Read
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • Mockingjayby Suzanne Collins
  • The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry 
  • What is Meditation? Buddhism for Everyone by Rob Nairn
  • The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
  • The Venetian’s Wife by Nick Bantock
  • The Name of the World by Denis Johnson

Still a student moving in rhythm to the academic calendar, my summers are about escape. This year, I was captivated when I found myself in China (Balzac) and the Dominican Republic (Oscar Wao), but I got truly and gleefully lost in Russia and Wyoming. 

In describing Wyoming in The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich’s writing is a wonder. It’s brief and pointed and jarringly astute, her insights sounding like koans in need of thoughtful consideration. In the 15-page title essay alone, I was repeatedly awe-struck by her descriptions of place, people, and life. 

"A person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place." 

Read that again. 

She nails dominant society’s understanding of a person’s life in 19 words, and then goes on posit a radically different alternative. In the same sentence! Over and over again I found myself reaching for a pen to highlight passages like this:

"We Americans…have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” 

The fact that these insights are wrapped around stories of cowboys and sheepherders drinking, living out of wagons, chasing their livelihood on horses across hardscrabble red dirt plains, is a sensual bonus. Ehrlich is a sorceress, and I am tracking down her other tomes as soon as I can. 

As for Russia, let me begin by saying that I hate the Russians, or at least I’m supposed to. As a Lithuanian, the last hundred years of history in particular have been a gory, shameful period of Soviet oppression. I’ve personally met men who opposed the Russian occupation of the country, and have missing fingers and missing years in prison to show for it.

And yet, like most oppressive regimes, the Red Menace is downright pitiable once it’s on a human scale. The Suitcase recounts the authors life as a soldier, sculptor, black-market sock salesman, and newspaper reporter in one laughably absurd scenario after another. Here is Dovlatov’s frank appraisal of humanity that  perfectly captures the Soviet cynicism that carries the book. 

"Most people consider problems whose solutions don’t suit them to be insoluble. And they constantly ask questions to which they don’t need truthful answers." 

For Dovlatov, Soviet Russia is a heartbreaking system of folly and incompetence, which luckily for the reader is both thrilling and darkly funny. This book seems destined to be resigned to the specific marginalia of Russian history, but with it’s timeless wit, it deserves so much more.

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