Sunday, December 27, 2009

Miles to go

now finished: Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Up in the Air. Much like the previous book I read, about John Quincy Adams, boy do I relate to the main character! I never thought I would find myself so similar to two men as I have in reading these last two books.

Ryan Bingham flies - a lot. He is more comfortable in airports and jetting from place to place than he is in conventional things like homes and families. I understand Ryan. I take it that some people don't?

In the grand scheme of things, I am so not a frequent flyer. Nor am I ever likely to be an elite member of any given airline's club: I tend to buy tickets based mostly on price, my miles are spread across a few airlines, and I can count the number of trips I've taken by redeeming miles on one hand. But maybe being a flyer is also state of mind. I tend to be pretty zen about the whole flying thing. And I most certainly do not hate the airlines. Au contraire. I hate the passengers who complain about them.

People get really impatient when they fly, but I think they are impatient about all the wrong things. They are ready to tear the airline apart if there's a ten-minute flight delay, but they have no concept of how to get their stupid bags out of the overhead bin and get off the plane in an efficient fashion. They are all convinced that The Airline is going to lose their luggage, and for some reason it is okay to complain about this theoretical possibility, but they don't like it if I complain about an actuality, such as their child screaming or kicking the back of my seat.

It would probably behoove me to get elite status on some airline, and to get some first-class upgrades. I haven't really been in a position where I've flown more than a few times a year for the last few years, so it's kind of a non-issue. But I would love nothing more than a job that has me flying around all the time. Like Ryan Bingham's. He's comfortable and happy in Airworld. I relate.

Other things I like about the book are 1)that it has an easy familiarity with U.S. geography, which you would think any American has but boy would you be mistaken and 2)it has this whole snarky observation-of-Mormons/Utah thing going on throughout which I found awesome.

The movie, which is currently playing and getting much Oscar buzz, is quite different from the book, but also good. I think if you like one you will like the other, but they are different.

One of the most interesting things about Up in the Air is that it was published around July 2001. Meaning, then September 11 happened, forever altering flying as we know it and probably wrecking the chances of Kirn's whimsical Airworld having mass appeal at that time. That's a bummer for Kirn. I hope the release of the film this year inspires lots of us to pick up the book -- a light read, but with a lot of cleverness tucked in between the lines.

Friday, December 25, 2009


now finished: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

It is hard to sum up my feelings about my most recent presidential bio subject, John Quincy Adams, aka my new best friend. I wonder if this is why people read biographies? That eventually, if you read enough biographies, you are bound to come across your doppelganger and in reading an exhaustive account of his/her life, come to a greater understanding of yourself?

I seriously had to stop counting the ways I am similar to JQA -- it was distracting me from my reading. Professional dilemma, temperament, outlook. Let's see: JQA loved travelling internationally and was interested in being a diplomat, but when he got the job offer his first worry was whether the job would leave enough time for reading literature. (Hello.) He really just wanted to be a poet and read things and then think about them, but he was smart so he made it through law school, even though his heart was never, ever into being a lawyer. He kept a diary, narrating and reflecting on daily events for years. He was moody and held people, including himself, to really high standards.

"Resolved to be his own man, Adams went out of his way to demonstrate how individualistic he planned to be. From his first moments in the Senate, he behaved in a manner that sometimes amused his colleagues, frequently baffled them, and occasionally angered a number..." - p.144

He did not like the two political parties and insisted that all his actions in government came from a place of personal integrity, not blind loyalty to a party. He put off getting married and was averse to the dating scene during his college days. Of course: it was a waste of time when he could be reading! He was forever starting projects but not necessarily keeping up with them; he was just interested in so many things. Among these things were languages, of which he learned several.

He was actually quite good at his job, maybe better than his poetry, although he did write some. Oh yeah, and fashion! He took a lot of flak about his clothes, some of it from his mother, Abigail. He just didn't put that much effort into refining his dress, looking nice, or being stylish. This was a problem. When he was up for election to anything, he didn't like to talk about it or to campaign:

"The prospect of a seat in the House had such portent that Adams chose for the moment not to discuss it even in his diary. He kept mostly quiet on the matter until after he won the election." -p. 335

While quite young, he travelled by himself, happily. He came to love astronomy when he started learning about it. He sometimes suffered from melancholy. He quoted Voltaire.

Perhaps one of the greatest summings up was about some tree-planting he was doing against conventional wisdom at the family's Massachusetts house:

"It left him as a minority of one seeking to prove the universe wrong -- a position JQA found quite comfortable." - p. 350

Nagel writes the book drawing heavily on JQA's lifelong diary to structure the story. I think Nagel misses the point sometimes. He has researched the Adams family so widely that I think the breadth of his knowledge makes him miss some of JQA's depth. Nagel doesn't seem to understand that a diary is a place for reflection, reconsideration, rumination, and elaborate plans. It is a place where certain things will be discussed and others ignored, not necessarily in the same proportion that attention is given to them in the writer's daily life. Nagel goes so far as to say JQA was never content but I think he is wrong. I think Nagel just can't relate to JQA, doesn't really "get' him. So how could Nagel come to accurate conclusions?

It's not my favorite biography in terms of being a favorite work, but I loved the experience of reading it, and discovering my double in the form of the sixth president of the United States.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday swap thanks

This year I participated in the Book Bloggers holiday Swap, a fun Secret Santa gift exchange among book bloggers. (And there are many of us, by the way, for those of you who lurk outside the book blogging world.)

I received two hardcovers(!) from my thoughtful Santa swapper: Amigoland by Oscar Casares and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. These have both been on my to-read list for a while, and I am grateful for the gift. Of course, I will post my thoughts here when I read them, which I predict will be in mid-2010. What a fun thing this holiday book swap was.

Thank you, Brittany!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When E.M. Forster talks...

now finished: Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
now reading: John Quincy Adams: A Private Life, A Public Life by Paul. C. Nagel

E.M. Forster: I swoon. When I first read him two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer awesomeness of his writing in A Passage to India. I've owned a copy of his Aspects of the Novel for years, but just got around to reading it after letting it stare accusingly at me from my shelf of books-on-writing that I somehow keep ignoring while I waste time going to law school, etc. Not only was it high time I read his classic on what a novel is, but it was also time to commence my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project sequel, in which I shall read a second book from my A-to-Z top half, the thirteen authors I liked best. So, this was my second Forster.

He's just so freakin' smart. And literary. And witty, and perceptive. He puts things so well, even when he's just talking about literature and not writing it. He is a true master. I would so love to hear from people who met him or heard him speak before he died. You must be out there - share your thoughts with me! I find everything he says so impressive. Reading Aspects of the Novel, however, I also found myself in fits of jealousy as he analyzed this or that novel; I have a four-page list of reading suggestions now, thanks to him. My Goodreads "to-read" shelf runneth over.

But he did talk about books I have read also. You know, your Wuthering Heights, your Great Expectaions, and perhaps most exciting, War and Peace. E.M. Forster sings its praises, good on him. He's super matter-of-fact about it being marvelous. He even comes out and says that foreign novelists are basically better than English novelists, and he calls Tolstoy courageous and divine. As for The Book in particular, he offers this:

"Then why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a while, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what has struck them." -- p. 39

Soooo good. He concludes that the development of novels may well be a reflection of the development of humanity. I want to hang out with E.M. and talk about novels over a few beers. But he gets to do most of the talking.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Revolutionary Dude

now finished:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
now reading:
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

James Monroe took a lot of flak, but he was actually quite awesome. He had integrity and just honest-to-god wanted to do the right things to make this fledgling union into - well, an awesome union! As a diplomat and in all the other positions he held he worked really hard, but the partisan winds of politics weren't always blowing in his favor. This was never more true than during his presidential administration: he was the last sure-thing destined-to-be-president dude from the Revolutionary generation, and pretty much his entire cabinet plus an enemy or two in Congress wanted to be the first of the younger generation to be elected, in 1824. So they spent the whole time jockeying for position and stirring up shite, while Monroe remained unfailingly neutral but still got blamed for lots of dumb stuff.

This book gave me such a greater understanding of him. He wasn't as inherently brilliant as his buddies Madison and Jefferson, but he excelled at being a pragmatic problem solver, which they did not. And he did a lot of things well. He completely and totally saved Madison's skin during the War of 1812, for example. Another likable president who actually did quite a bit to save the day.

Ammon's book is not my favorite of the bios I've been reading; it's a little slow and convoluted at times. But even when I got bogged down, I felt bad disliking the book at all because I so much respect Ammon and other historian/biographers who have combed through pages and pages and volumes and volumes of material for, like, fifteen years to write a well-researched book. Can you imagine working on a book for fifteen years? Is there anything to which I have devoted fifteen years? Besides, say, watching baseball, or Oscar-nominated films. (Which, speaking of, it's totally awards season; check out my ramblings on my "front page" blog.)

Monroe also tried, often, to do the right thing for Native Americans and slaves. Not that he was sure what the right thing was, but he at least tried to solve those huge problems that are such a blemish on the reputations of him and his crew. Besides his attempts to get Liberia going (you know - Monrovia and stuff), he tried to stop the execution of slaves who were arrested after plotting an uprising. It was all such a mess, and I can't imagine what good anyone I know today would have done about slavery if they had lived at that time, despite how easy it is to criticize with hindsight.

I relate to Monroe a lot because he was a little self-critical but also it upset him terribly when people didn't understand him, or misjudged him or his motivations. I think the people around him might have been oblivious to how much he cared, while they were basically willing to be shallow. All in all, I am impressed by my boy Monroe. Except for the part where he enjoyed/was good at practicing law. Yuck. But I do like that initially he, as with all the others, didn't know what he should do with his life.

Next up? My new BFF JQA!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Shutter to Think

now finished:
This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
now reading:
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon

Yes, I have been reading, even though I have not been blogging. Shame on me. After So Big, I finished This Too Is Diplomacy and Shutter Island, before plunging into another giant president biography -- Monroe, now -- which has consumed my last two weeks or so.

This Too is Diplomacy is something I had partially read before, in raw form, because I was in a writing group with the author, Dorothy Irving. That was my writing group in Boston, right before I went to Korea. I rejoined up with them off and on post-Korea as well, when I happened to be in Boston, but by that time Dorothy had pretty much finished her book and was working on publishing it. The book is about the life she led with her husband and their kids as hubby worked in the Foreign Service through the 1960s and 1970s. Obviously, it was interesting to me even before law school as she read excerpts to us, and now that I have my eyes on the Foreign Service it is even more interesting. Or I guess, interesting in different ways. Anyway, this was the first time I had read the whole thing straight through. If any of you are curious about what life in the foreign service is like, give it a whirl!

As for Shutter Island, it left me confused. I hate it when that happens. Not too long ago Alafair Burke blogged about why people don't like to read mysteries. At the time my gut response was that it's overwhelming for non-mystery readers to listen to the mystery genre enthusiasts; all those die-hards seem to have breathlessly read everything by so-and-so, and you feel sort of looked-down-on if you are a mere dabbler, so you just don't even bother trying to conquer the mystery section. But reading Shutter Island reminded me of another reason that I as a dabbler sometimes feel lesser than those oh-my-I've-read-all-of-her-books people. Because sometimes I straight up don't get it.

I read Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (before seeing the movie) and when I started seeing Leo as duly-appointed federal-maahshall in the Shutter Island previews I became intrigued enough to read this one, too. (I ended up having extra time because the release of the film was delayed for stupid reasons.) I really enjoyed reading the book, and I won't write any spoilers here because I do recommend it, but I literally don't know what happened at the end. I hate that! I consulted with another friend who has read it who supported me and said there was definitely ambiguity and that I am not stupid, but still, I hate it! And I remembered that another reason I'm not a mystery devotee is I hate those people who are always all "Oh, I totally figured that out so early" every single time they read one. I think I resent them. Plus, ugh, why would you want to know how things end before you get to the end? It's not as if I read the last page of a book before the first; that would be retarded. But when I do get to the end? I would like to understand it.

Well, if anyone wants to discuss the layers of mystery and ambiguity in Shutter Island, let me know. Meanwhile, I returned to my presidential bios quest, and have spent the last couple weeks plodding through Harry Ammon's James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, which is huge and sometimes a little dull. It's a really big book. Heavy, too. I get in my weightlifting practice when I hold it. And the writing is dry, especially compared to the giant Madison tome I just read. But I can't hate on Ammon too much, or anyone who does such amazing amounts of research for these bios. It takes them like fifteen years and they sift through insane amounts of documents, all so I can read a biography of every president to see where we went wrong. Good stuff!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hi, my name is Sobig.

Hi, Sobig. Well, actually his name is Dirk, but during childhood was nicknamed Sobig, which came from the repeated nonsense of adults asking the baby in a cheesy voice, "How big is the baby?!" and replying "Soooo big" complete with arm motions. This is the first thing that should clue you in to how awesome Edna Ferber is: she makes fun of our silly baby talking, while not making fun of the endearing sentiments people feel about children, especially your own. This all happens in the first two pages of So Big, and it only gets better from there.

I read my first Ferber a few years ago, Cimarron. Like that book, So Big features a strong heroine who deals with farming the land, eventually losing her husband, raising a child, etc. But there is also so much more in this Pulitzer-winning novel, not the least of which is a story about how appreciating beauty and art can take place on a farm, or in a painter's studio.

The themes of artist life and what "success" is resonate with me (as we all know). The magic of the book is that she plants the seeds all along the way and then when we move from the High Prairie of Illinois to WWI-era Chicago, we see the result she has cultivated. If we are smart, then we reflect on our own appreciation of beauty, and how we would answer the question of when does it become "too late" to find the life of love, art, and creation that you abandoned to make a lot of money?

Selina Dejong is a success, not because she married the "right" man, made millions, or has a mansion, but because she knows that the cabbages are beautiful. Her son knows this somewhere inside him, but will his bond-trading, car-driving, pleasure-seeking rich friends outweigh the influence of artists who hang out in Paris and really know themselves?

I think the name Edna Ferber sounds so, well, old-fashioned that we unconsciously assume we have an idea of what her books must be all about. Edna Ferber was pretty bad-ass, though, from what I can tell. It was probably like being named Britney or Taylor in the 1880s, wasn't it? (note to self: discover origins of the name Edna) She eventually ended up hanging out in the Algonquin Round Table in New York, which shows that she was witty and avant-garde-like. I for one have big plans to read even more of her books, like Giant and Show Boat. She is my candidate for author-that-needs-to-be-rediscovered.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Perpetual Union and liberty, please!

now finished: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving
up next: So Big by Edna Ferber

Last night I finished reading the James Madison biography with tears in my eyes.

Spoiler alert? The book ends with the dramatic telling of his death, touching tributes from John Quincy Adams and others, and Madison's final plea for everyone to value both the Union and the liberty for which he had worked his entire life.

Basically, Madison and his buddies changed the world. I think this is all too easy for us to forget, because now we take the United States for granted. But for the past month I have been swept up in the world of someone who not only was born and came of age when the U.S. did not even exist, but who was a huge part of forming the very foundation of it.

The book is superbly researched. I kind of want to be Ketcham's friend. I doubt that I would want to be his research assistant, although I steadfastly admire anyone who is. I think Ketcham read everything while writing this book -- Madison's writings, his friends' writings, his enemies' writings, Congressional reports, colonial newspapers, letters to and from just about everybody who ever knew Madison and his family.

Highlights for me included Madison's time at Princeton and his insane devotion to studying and learning, let alone figuring out what to do with his life. I've already mentioned here that my boy Madison, just like me, read the law due to interest in public affairs but never even attempted to be a counselor-at-bar. Madison was so well-respected in Virginia after his lifetime of service that multiple people praise the depths of his intellect and visited him in his old age just to chat and bask in his wisdom. Plus he came out of retirement in 1829 to be in the Virginia legislature one more time to try to head off the nullification crisis (Southern states resenting the federal government - we all know where that was headed).

A favorite scene of mine was a New Year's reception during Jefferson's presidency -- when Madison was Secretary of State -- whose guests included Native American chiefs and an ambassador from Tunis. The latter took it as a given that the U.S. hosts would provide concubines for him, but then, he did bring Arabian horses along as presents for the U.S. officials and their wives. Ah, dipomacy. He also asked the Cherokee what god they worshipped, and they said the Great Spirit. So he asked them if they believed in Mahomed, Abraham, or Jesus Christ. None of the above, said the Indians. Well, then, asked Sidi Sulliman Mellimelli, what prophet do you worship? None, they said. They worshipped the Great Spirit without an agent. Well then "you are all vile Hereticks" he told them.

How awesome is that? I love how he's so inquisitive, like, well, there must be some prophet, let me just see what category you're in, any religion would be fine. But no prophet at all? Shocking! It just goes to show - again - how much the three biggies of monotheism have in common. And how much do you love the Cherokee and the other Chiefs there who are like, we don't need some prophet. We're directly in touch with the Great Spirit, hello!

Dolley, of course, is a righteous babe. You grow up in elementary school hearing about how Dolley Madison was a "great hostess." Translation? She knew how to party! Not to mention her teenage sister who lived with them during the early years of their marriage to take full advantage of the fashions and social scenes of Philadelphia and later Washington D.C.

And the friendship, partnership, and accomplishments of Madison and Jefferson together? Astonishing. And what good friends they remained throughout their lives, just down the road on their little farms there, always visiting, and philosophizing, and revolutionizing, and whatnot.

Basically - I love this book. I think I enjoyed it as much as reading David McCullough's John Adams. It has definitely renewed my fervor for my presidential bios project. It has also cultivated in me a great respect for Madison and his ideals, including his strong belief in the Union and true liberty.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Luxuriance of Nature's Charms

now reading: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now also reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving

I have spent the entire month of October reading my Madison bio. This is not entirely a bad thing, as I have rather enjoyed delving into the world of Madison ("mad about Madison," Brian calls me right now), but I am a little shocked that it's been a whole month on one book. That's kind of like being in law school again and having time for only one or two pleasure reads per semester. However, I have been doing a lot of stuff during October -- some writing project success, etc. And I have been catching up on reading a bunch of magazines and news, too. Still and all, it's nice to be getting close to finishing Madison.

I'm pretty sure my next presidential bio, about Monroe, will be long too. Most of these president bios are. One's read-a-bio-of-every-president project could easily consume all of one's reading time. I am going to make sure that doesn't happen again, having learned my Madison/October lesson, because there is just too much else to read! My Goodreads queue is getting to be like my Netflix queue!

Now, the honest truth is that Ketcham's book is always interesting, but sometimes it plods along. It's never really boring, it just gets kind of bogged down in the intricacies of the Congress or the trip to Montpelier or whatever. Ketcham doesn't have all of Madison's writings (they didn't all survive, apparently) so he pieces together this life using a lot of other people's writings and observations too.

What happens is the most fascinating little details pop up at the weirdest times. Like when James and Dolley first get married and Dolley's teenage sister lives with them in the Philadelphia scene of balls, parties, and the "social season." Diplomats from France hang out and they party non-stop, it feels like, with fashions in the French style of showing a lot of cleavage. This horrifies Abigail Adams. There's a letter from her to a friend in which she calls it an "outrage upon all decency" and goes on to describe the outrage of using the Girdle to accent the Bosom.

"Most [ladies] wear their Cloaths too scant upon thebody and too full upon the Bosom for my fancy," Abigail writes. "Not content with the show which nature bestows, they borrow from art, and litterally look like Nursing Mothers."

I find that hilarious, "the show which nature bestows." I guess there is no shortage still today of fashionable young ladies who use their clothes and other tricks to enhance that "show" of "nature" that so easily fascinates the boys. What would Abigail think of Us Weekly, for example? But I like to think she would appreciate watching the Oscars red carpet. I could see her sitting at home with John watching and commenting. She would totally give an A+ to some elegant number worn by Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet, but maybe frown at your Bjorks and your Chers over the years. Dolley and James, though, would totally be hosting an Oscar party, with snacks and ballots for their friends to fill out and prizes. It's just how Dolley rolled.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Alphabetting Again

Hey everyone! Remember my A-to-Z literary blog project? Sure you do, because except for those of you who were here in the War and Peace days there's not been much else to this blog. Well, remember when I finished my A-to-Z project and talked about my final thoughts on which authors I like and which I'd like to read again?

Pretty soon I am going to do that. Going to read a second book, that is, by each of the deserving authors of my top half. Thirteen of my A-to-Z authors are going to get another turn in my ever-growing To Read queue. Namely, Amis, Capote, Dick, Eco, Forster, Iyer, Lawrence, Rushdie, Styron, Updike, Vidal, Warren, and Yalom. (Runner-up was Erica Jong. I'll get to her, eventually. And a few of the others. But not in this next round of thirteen.)

For some of these, I have an idea of what to read next, but for others I need suggestions. For example, for Philip K. Dick, back when I read Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Sara insisted that I should read his Valis instead. In fact she insisted twice. So I feel compelled to do that one next for him. For E.M. Forster, I am reading Aspects of the Novel next because I own it already and have it sitting by my bed. For Umberto Eco, though, should it be Foucault's Pendulum or not? Should my next Rushdie be Midnight's Children? And so forth.

Most importantly, Martin Amis, since he is first. I am deciding among Time's Arrow, Money, or The Rachel Papers. Anyone? Also, for Pico Iyer I am deciding between Falling Off the Map and Video Night in Kathmandu, leaning toward the latter. Anyone, again?

When is all this happening, you ask? As soon as I finish Madison (I'm past page 400!), another Pulitzer winner, and Up in the Air, I think I will start incorporating my A-C-D-E-F-I-L-R-S-U-V-W-Y into my reading rotation. But I will definitely be spending a few more nights curled up with Madison before I get there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mad About Madison

now reading: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham

Actually Brian came up with that catchy phrase, there in the title. That's how he describes me as I delve into my colonial Philadelphia/Virginia world each night. I've been slowly reading my James Madison biography for a couple of weeks now. I need to sit down and read for an hour or two at a time, but instead I seem to only be reading at night before falling asleep -- which means I'm doing twenty pages a day. It's a 700-page book. This could take a while.

But I do like my boy Madison, and I relate to him a lot, what with his not knowing what he wants to do with his life, reading law but never wanting to practice as a lawyer, not bothering to be admitted to the bar, etc. One thing of interest is that this bio mentions from time to time what Madison was reading at various stages of his education and life. He sought all the great writers of course, not just on political theory but philosophy, literature, lots of classics, ancients, essays, Montesquieu was apparently big, and so on. I keep finding myself folding the corner of the page so I can go back and get more reading recommendations. Thanks a lot, Madison and Ketcham. After I slog through this 700-page book, I'll just have 700 more books added to my list.

No, really, though -- should I continue blogging about non-fiction here or not? I suppose I can blog about everything I read. But the literary snob (joke) in me keeps wondering if some things should be excluded.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

My boy Madison

This is just a quick note to say I'm reading Ralph Ketcham's James Madison: A Biography, which means it will be a while until I'm reading a novel again. I never know whether I want to blog about non-fiction or not. I probably should, since I read a lot of it. This book's a doozy - 700 pages of colonial bio. I will say, though, that a hundred pages in I have found yet another President who in his early twenties had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. I have discovered this recurring theme as I go along reading a biography of each prez (to see where we went wrong).

I will also say that I have found myself to have quite a bit in common with Madison, not the least of which was that he "read the law" only due to his interest in public affairs, with no intention to ever become a counselor-at-law. Ha! That's my boy! Bar exam, schmar exam. And if I haven't yet convinced you to read it, there's also a delightfully matter-of-fact one-sentence insult of Long Island that made me really happy.

What do you think? Why do I hesitate to blog about non-fiction here? Is it related to my supposedly being a literary snob or what? Did I even mention that I recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Too hideous and too brief

now reading: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

The great thing about reading Infinite Jest first is that now everything else by DFW is a piece of cake. (What a strange cliche, by the way.) Brief Interviews With Hideous Men has many Jest-like digressions, bizarre subjects, and footnotes, but it is a tiny fraction of the length and commitment of Infinite Jest. I don't know that I would do Infinite Jest again right now, or ever, and I wonder if I had read Brief...Hideous... first if I would want more of him or not.

David Foster Wallace was really smart. This is part of what makes me give his books the benefit of my doubt a few times, when I could just as easily close them and walk away. I even stick with his writing about awful, just awful subjects, like torture and excrement. However, he still pisses me off when I get to those awful parts of his books. It's like if, say, Martin Scorsese or some other fantastic, creative, intelligent, visionary film director spent his time making nasty porn -- it would be such a waste. And weak.

As my devoted fans know, Brian and I read Infinite Jest in the first half of 2008. Reading that book takes a lot out of you. But the one thing with which I decidedly left that book was a sense of the creative genius and the regular-ol-life genius of DFW. I wanted to urge him to use his powers for good (99% of Jest) instead of evil (the awful animal-torture passage), not that my opinion would matter to him. I wanted him to not be like a playground bully, or a druken frat boy, or a coked out partier on a three-day binge, who has to take his show-offy antics one step too far, and tarnishes his powerful persona in the process by revealing that he is as capable of foolish mistakes as the rest of us.

And then, in September of 2008, he committed suicide, an act which sort of proved my point. Just when a reader thinks DFW has outsmarted us all, he succumbs to the same bullshit he had previously so fabulously deconstructed - we thought.

This is what I am experiencing all over -- and over and over -- as I read Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It's a collection of experimental "short stories," wide-ranging tidbits with some recurring themes, tangents stacked upon tangents, incisive societal commentary presented in an entertaining fashion that fears no taboo, and utter brilliance marred by the occasional misstep when the taboo-busting for taboo-busting's sake defeats its own purpose. I think I like DFW, I think I want to read more of his writing, then I think that no, I've had enough; then I remember that we won't get anything new from him because he chickened out of facing this life and I become furious.

DFW's mind seems to have grappled with or be able to grapple with every problematic, frustrating, or amusing aspect of our post-modern world, until you remember that he bailed out. Suicide is a desperate act. DFW's writing has you convinced that he was way too above ever being desperate. What a joke. What a damn shame, that the curious mixture of admiration and disgust has to be tainted now by pity.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Twenty years after

now reading: 1984 by George Orwell

This little paperback has been sitting around what feels like forever, so I'm finally checking it off my Books You Should Have Read In High School Or At Any Point Since list.

Of course, everyone's favorite things to say about 1984 are 1. that it is "prophetic" and 2. that its message is "still relevant today." Seriously, I challenge you to go listen in on a discussion, or peruse some online reviews, of Orwell's famous book, and see how far you can get before running across those terms.

Well, I'm going to have to go ahead and agree with that. To wit:

"Talking to her, he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird. " - p. 156

Hello, Fox News? George Dubya Bush? Right-wing contracts with America? And my personal favorite, the "war on terror." Anyone?

If for some reason you disagree with me, go Netflix American Blackout already. You'll see what I mean. Go on, I'll wait here. Hurry ba-ack!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Top Three Frustrating Novels

Inspired by a thread on a Goodreads forum, I have been thinking about my Top Three Most Frustrating Novels. This does not mean a book you hated the most, but rather a book you liked that made you angry in the end, or a book that had potential but never seemed to reach it. I will try to keep this specific spoiler free, but it will necessarily give some general spoilage.

1. The Life of Pi - This made me so mad because of the ending. The book was unbelievably well written, creative, and interesting, and then I felt the ending was a super cheap shot. I was working at Borders in Cambridge at the time, and I remember the whole group of us twentysomething supervisors reading it and discussing it. We were somewhat divided -- a couple thought the ending was brilliant, whereas I was furious at it. The book is so good that I continue to enthusiastically recommend it to people, and I even think I need to continute to understand the ending on multiple levels -- but damn! did it ever infuriate me!

2. Infinite Jest -- This would be another book with a frustrating ending whose genius becomes clear after you pick up the book from where you've hurled it across the room, except Infinite Jest is too big to be hurled anywhere. Actually, the ending is not what earns Jest a place on my list; instead it's the portion somewhere around 60% (?) of the way through where one of the psycho characters goes on a psycho murderous rampage killing stray and pet animals. Wallace, in his chillingly good writing style, delivers the macabre details of this lunatic who kills rats, cats, and dogs. It is hard to get through, but what pisses me off the most is that he lingers over the cat killing, disturbingly and I guess somewhat pornographically, and then goes on to the dog slaughter for like a page. It made me hate DFW a little bit for a while. I had to put the book down for a month or more and considered not finishing it. I hate cat haters, and I can't tell exactly to what extent he is one, but it was gross. I consider that portion of the book a huge flaw, which gets lost in the hundreds of pages of sheer genius surrounding it.

3. The Handmaid's Tale - I get annoyed by this book partly because of how people fall all over themselves loving it. I think it is my least favorite Atwood -- and by the way, I love her persona and intelligence, love hearing her speak, and love reading her books. The Handmaid's Tale, to me, is a kind of smug, reactionary novel that falls just short of the beautiful, wise literary feminism of which Atwood has made a career and a life, but it does so quietly and profoundly so nobody notices the frustrating things about it. If it had been written ten years later, Oprah would have picked it for her book club and then maybe a few more people would understand what I mean about the sensationalism, not-quite-perfected writing and storytelling. It's like "deep thought for dummies." There are better dystopian novels, better philosophical novels, and better socio-political-feminist novels, but because it's Margaret Atwood who has since only got better and better, The Handmaid's Tale always gets a free pass, and that bugs me.

What a fun exercise this was!

Monday, August 31, 2009


This A-to-Z Literary blog project, as you'll recall, was about the authors probably even more than it was about the individual books. My goal was to work my way through the alphabet, selecting one author for each letter whom I had meant to read for a while. If I read a "classic" book that I had also meant to read, so much the better. As it happened, my absolute favorite book and favorite author of the project are the same letter, but I will get to that in a minute. In considering the 26 authors, I put them into five basic groups, based on the answer to the question "Do I want to read this author again?"

OF COURSE! Martin Amis, Truman Capote, Umberto Eco, E.M. Forster, Salman Rushdie, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren, Irvin D. Yalom

SURE... Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Pico Iyer, Erica Jong, D.H. Lawrence, Frank Norris, Gao Xingjian

MAYBE Nadine Gordimer, Arthur Koestler, Norman Mailer, Chuck Palahniuk, Daniel Quinn, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola

NO...? William S. Burroughs

NEVER! Cynthia Ozick

The Awful: I cannot tell you how much I loathed O, The Puttermesser Papers. Not only am I forever swearing off Cynthia, but I think that book might be one of the worst books I have ever read. Maybe THE worst -- unless I've read something else that was so bad I blocked it out of my memory. Burroughs I actually might read again. I do like the Beats (Ginsberg is my fave) and their whole schtick, it's just that Naked Lunch really didn't do it for me. It was weird, and pointless, and weirdly pointless.

The Disappointments: Along with Burroughs, there were some others who did not live up to the hype and the accolades I have perceived to be bestowed upon them. Norman Mailer, Nadine Gordimer, and Chuck Palahniuk were just - okay. They have devoted followings, literary acclaim, and even a serious prize or two under their belt, so I was a little surprised. However, they were not bad, by any means. I might try them again, at some point. Especially Mailer, because inevitably I will end up reading his works that won Pulitzers, and I did like some things about The Naked and the Dead. It has also got better with hindsight, and it was a fast (although long) read. Chucky P., I can see his potential. Gordimer's None to Accompany Me was infuriating partly because of the main character's whiny, spineless infidelity, not because the author lacked writing talent.

Novel? Pico Iyer's Cuba and the Night and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying were barely novels; they were not just thinly veiled memoirs, but I daresay not-veiled-at-all memoirs. Coincidentally, neither book was all that great, but I saw interesting writing and interesting personality, and they made me want to read more of that author's thoughts, whether they choose to call it fiction or not.

The sure things: I knew for a fact that I would like Capote and In Cold Blood, Eco and The Name of the Rose, and Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. I ended up liking The Satanic Verses the least of those three, finding it a little weird/tedious at parts, but I did like it, and thought Rushdie was great, and want to read other books of his. His book was also one of the most unlike how I thought it would be -- decidedly more wacky than I had been led to believe, what with it inspiring retarded radical religious death threats and all. If there is anything in the world more simultaneously serious and utterly laughably stupid than the "fatwa" against Salman Rushdie, I don't know what it is. In Cold Blood is, of course, close to perfect. Umberto Eco, a literary genius, should probably be the next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The surprises: Which are, in many ways, the point of the project. I discovered some authors whose writing I loved more than I would have guessed, and some books that are even better than I thought they would be, such as All the King's Men and A Passage to India. Martin Amis, too, fits the bill as exactly what I was looking to discover.

The stats: I read 23 men and only three women. Yikes! How disappointing! There were 15 Americans, four Brits, and seven other countries. Twenty-one books written in English and five translated. Two from the 19th century, four from the early 20th, eight from WWII through about the 60s, and a dozen from the late 20th century.

The winners! But, the real question (and answer) for which you've been waiting, is obviously: who was the best? Well, if I were going to hand out, say, Olympic medals, it would have to go like this. Taking the bronze, for exquisite writing that shows others how it's done and leaving me so excited to delve into his other works...E.M. Forster!

In second place, with a silver medal in the A-to-Z blog project event, a writer who blew me away with how good of a writer he is on every level -- words, wordplay, story, research, depth, breadth, imagination, compelling to read more, and philosophical outlook -- even though I have also heard for years what a good writer he is, we have Gore Vidal. A genius, nothing less. I cannot recommend Julian highly enough.

And the gold medal book AND author, my absolute favorite of the 26, astonishingly good, should never be allowed to fade into obscurity, and so so so well done, I give you the winner: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron.

The end? No, it's just the beginning actually. I have thought about the better thirteen of the authors (my "top half," you see) and over the next year, as I move on to other reading, I will also read another book by each of those thirteen. We will see if they continue to impress!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Now I've Read My ABCs

now finished: Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

I'll tell you what's now finished: my A-to-Z literary blog project! I am sort of in awe as I think about it. For so long, the thought of my next letter has been ever-present in the back of my mind if not the front, even though I have read other things while making my way from 'A' author to 'Z' author. I mean hello - I was in law school, plus there was a little thing called Infinite Jest, so no wonder my project took two and a half years instead of the initially planned one.

Once I started Emile Zola, it hit me that I was at the end. For that reason, I'm glad Therese Raquin was not terribly long. It's a quick read, and I liked it at times, although I was so disappointed in how stupid and messed up the protagonists were. I liked Francois the cat a lot -- and I loathed the stupid, whiny, adulterous Therese and Laurent.

Now that I have finished, it is time to make some decisions! First of all, this, even more than finishing law school, has truly freed me up to be able to read whatever I want next. But I always have projects in mind, and have had my ongoing read-all-the-Pulitzer winners and read-a-bio-of-every-president projects for a while that got kind of pushed aside during law school and A-to-Z.

Secondly, this blog ... almost no one reads it, and so here I am at another pivotal point where I get to ask myself why I even write it (other than for the delight of posterity when they uncover it). I started it for War and Peace and then really didn't know what to do with the blog when I finished The Book; among other things, I had to change the name from "My War and Peace blog" to "My Literary Supplement." The A-to-Z blog project gave it a new focus, and persuaded me to keep it around, because who couldn't use another place to babble about things she's reading?

Third, and perhaps most exciting: which of these authors will I read again after this little discovery process? Who was my best find? Who sucked? (Oh yes, there was one who sucked greatly.) These questions and more will be addressed next entry. So stay tuned!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"A thinker so prescient yet so blinded"

now finished: The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom

I ended up liking my Y even more than I thought I would. Of course, I am always interested in philosophy, but I also really came to like the therapy group a lot, to want to know what each character would do next. Yalom definitely constructed a novel, and I like how he constructed it, weaving in Schopenhauer's story, Julius' story, and the stories of Julius' patients, making them intertwine more than the reader at first realizes.

I like how Yalom helps the reader to conclude that Schopenhauer was very smart about things, but that he needn't totally discount the world. I have felt some of the same disdain for people as Schopenhauer apparently did -- although I do envy him for being so certain so early of his own genius! -- so I thought it was interesting that he might possibly have become happy when he achieved a bit of fame and thereby met people who were interested in him.

I also totally relate to Schopenhauer's desire to leave his thoughts for the world and not have them misinterpreted or weakened by others. It is not that fame is important, but the thing whereby we merit fame: "A man's greatest happiness is not that posterity will know something about him but he himself will develop thoughts that deserve consideration and preservation for centuries." - p. 322 How different the fame of, say, Plato or Einstein, versus the "fame" of reality TV trash! Even the recent death of Michael Jackson, freak extraordinaire, revealed this theme; people were conflicted, I think, because his "fame" of the last half of his life had totally eclipsed the talent and works of art which had previously given him the real kind of fame, and made him "deserve consideration and preservation for centuries."

I ALSO like that Schopenhauer thought supernatural religion was a bunch of nonsense.

I recommend the book, especially to people who like to think and analyze, and definitely to anyone who's been in group therapy.

I've always liked Western Philosophy; same as many an undergrad, I took the obligatory Philosophy 101 and, as I recall, did pretty well. A or A-minus. The Western Philosophy section was one of those in which I would linger when I worked at Borders, formulating in my head plans to work my way through all of the books in it. I do like me a reading project! I might start up another project soon here of choosing twelve major philosophers to read, one per month for a year. The trick is narrowing all the biggies down to twelve -- I have a list I've whittled to 23. I will probably post it to ask for advice.

Because, speaking of projects, can you believe I've (finally!) almost finished this one! Today I will start reading 'Z'! (Zola, if I haven't mentioned that on here already.) I'm so excited about having completed this project that I have a little spring in my step as I cross the living room.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reading in the Moment

now reading: The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom

A lot of The Schopenhauer Cure takes place in group therapy, and I rather enjoy reading it. Group therapy, when portrayed well, can be among the more entertaining and insightful things to read/watch. See also, The Bob Newhart Show. However, I haven't decided how great the novel is in general. It is entertaining, interesting, and well-constructed, but it also has that sort of confused identity thing going on, that it shares with the likes of Ishmael, where I wonder if the author really wanted to write a novel. Maybe Yalom wanted to fancifully muse about Schopenhauer and what he would be like if he lived in the modern world, but felt a little too constricted by the traditionally novel-like aspects of novel-writing.

I am learning a great deal about Schopenhauer. I guess he was kind of a brat, but depending on who you ask it could just be because he was such a genius. And I really like the well chosen quotes from Schopenhauer's works that start each chapter of the novel and relate to what happens in that chapter; I've taken to going back and re-reading the Schopenhauer quote at the beginning each time I finish a chapter.

I also like thinking about philosophy, and about how the ideas of the Far East make much more sense than Western religion. The book, while it makes me want to go out and read a million books by Plato, Kant, and other philosophers, is not a read through which the reader must slog. It is entertaining and you come to like the characters quite a bit, characters who are endearing in that special way only group therapy members can be.

Right now, the dastardly jackass character who worships Schopenhauer is really off-putting to me, but at the same time I completely and totally relate to Schopenhauer himself. I suppose I should be a little worried about what this could mean.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Y and Y not

NOW READING: The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom
my edition: ISBN 0060938109

Have you missed me? It feels like a long time since posting here. While I was in Michigan, approaching the end of 'X' (Soul Mountain), I wanted to buy 'Y' from Borders before the end of July to take advantage of their 3x the Borders Bucks promotion through July 31st. There was no Borders store in Grand Rapids or Holland or Saugatuck, so I ordered online, but I had it shipped to a store in Phoenix so I didn't have to pay shipping. I was happy to see that I could have it shipped to a Waldenbooks, too, which is even closer to my mom's place -- biking distance!

So then we got back from Michigan, and I waited. And waited and waited. The email from gave me a tracking number, but five days after the supposed delivery date I still hadn't received a call from the Waldenbooks, so I called them to check on it, and sure enough my Y book was there. When I went to pick it up, the woman said because they're Walden, they don't have access to the Borders info system with my phone number. I'm not entirely sure if she's smoking crack or really is giving the option to ship to a Waldenbooks, instructing the customer to wait for a call from the store, and then not providing the store with any way to call the customer, but that sounds like a typical Borders move, so I totally buy it.

It's okay because in the interim, I read another Pulitzer winner -- The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson -- and Madam Secretary by Madeleine Albright. McLaughlins was fine -- had its charms, and I liked the ending. Madeleine I loved. Her book took me a while, detailing as it does her life and foreign policy experiences. It got me very hopped up about the possibility of working in the foreign service, if I wasn't already hopped.

Finally, 'Y' is here. I have started The Schopenhauer Cure and it's pretty much what I expected, and I like thinking philosophically. In fact, I have long considered a philosophy reading project; maybe that will be next after Pulitzers and A-to-Z. Can you believe I'm on Y already?? At long last, the A-to-Z- project is winding down. I have even purchased Z and it's waiting on my bedside table. I got it as a real-life bricks-and-mortar Borders here so as not to have to wait.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

I souled the mountain

NOW FINISHED: Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Well, 'X' is in the can. Despite what you may have heard, Soul Mountain is not particularly hard or arduous or even really that long -- it's 500 pages, but a quick moving, breathy dialogue, spaced-out printing 500 pages. There are some languorous passages as he travels through the mountain and river villages but they aren't long and they flow nicely. However, there is something undeniably literary about the book, for whatever that is worth.

I have been scrolling through the reviews on Goodreads, and they all seem to fall into one of two categories, either Wow-this-is-breathtaking-I've-never-read-anything-like-it-dreamlike-narration-identity-beauty or "Wtf, Nobel Prize committee? I'd rather be mass marketing." One reviewer commented on there that this book is good for "anyone tired of anti-Chinese rhetoric." I could get behind that. It opens one's eyes to the normalcy that exists everywhere, even places that "we" think are so exotic. It makes me think how much we all have in common, while also showing how two people can never really understand each other because they are so different. It also talks about various peoples of different cultures that many in the West lump together as one "Chinese" population.

The book is nothing if not a voyage of self-discovery for the author, the narrator(s), the constructed identities of those persons which may or may not be different identities, and possibly even the reader. It also makes me want to go hang out in some of these villages in search of the mystical (mythical?) Lingshan, even if there are nasty snakes hanging around there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mr. X

NOW READING: Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

OK, I know. I KNOW that technically the name "Gao Xingjian" is really like "Xingjian Gao" in the way we here in the West would say our names (not my usual U.S. West, but the Western West, as opposed to not Asian, basically). But have you ever tried to find authors, plural, whose last names begin with X from among which to choose the 24th book of your A-to-Z Literary Blog Project? I daresay you have not!

The whole starts-with-X thing has always bugged me. One of my most gigantic pet peeves in life -- I'm talking right up there with "PIN n****r" and people who say they "don't have a choice" about shopping at Walmart -- is when there is a game, children's book, motivational poster, or other list where there is one word for each letter of the alphabet A through Z and then when they get to X there is NEVER an appropriate word/item for the list that actually starts with X, so they put in something like "eXtremely _____." It is totally cheating. The way I see it, if you want to do the whole gimmicky A-is-for..., B-is-for.... thing, then you damn well better either need an X-ray or a xylophone, or just don't make the list in the first place.

So I have been aware for a while of the difficulties presented by 'X' and I have allowed myself to read Gao Xingjian because he totally meets all the other qualifications (being an author I have wanted to read etc.) and also because he is so shelved under X and I certainly did not think about that back in 'G' time (hello Nadine!) so otherwise Gao would not have a chance. And he deserves a chance to have me read him, don't you think? Even if he is not a xylophone.

The only other options I found, by the way, were also Chinese last names that are actually Chinese first names. One was some mystery author and one was a woman who apparently goes by the one name, like Cher or Madonna. She could be better or even worse for my 'X' name credibility, depending on how you look at it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Kings and Eggs

NOW FINISHED: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I'm sure it is high time I pondered the relevance of the title All the King's Men. Now of course, we all can recite a little Humpty-Dumpty who had a great fall. And when you get to the end of Warren's book, the ways in which all of Willie Stark's men cannot put him together again are many and varied. Still, why that line in lieu of any others? Why a nursery rhyme at all? If I had a book group I might start the discussion by asking them these questions.

Speaking of book groups, I am jonesing for one right now. If I were settling anywhere I would start one. Instead I will just have to wait. This little blog of mine (I'm gonna let it shine) would be kind of like a book group, if anyone actually read it and commented on it. (Very few exceptions duly noted and appreciated.) Which means I clearly need to stimulate some discussion about books on here. I actually have misgivings about online book groups (see e.g. Infinite Summer) although they are not based on any particular bad experience. But I digress.

So all the king's men ... could not put Humpty together. I was thinking about why Robert Penn Warren (or any poet/writer/nursery rhyme composer) would liken a mighty politician/king's fall to a shattering egg, irrevocably damaged, as opposed to, you know, something that breaks but could be mended, at least a little. Then, I realized that I have a different question: Why is Humpty-Dumpty an egg? It never says that Humpty-Dumpty is an egg. In fact, it says that he is sitting on a wall. Since when do eggs go around sitting on walls?

A little Wikipedia action told me that the rhyme was presented as a riddle a couple centuries ago, a la "What falls off the wall and can never be put back together again." So, if the Humpty-Dumpty rhyme is a riddle, and the answer is that Humpty is an egg, and that is why he cannot be put back together again, I am somewhat back to my original question of why did the composer of the riddle rhyme invoke all the king's (horses and) men? What did that phrase "all the king's men" mean to a 17th-century nursery rhymer? Was it a common phrase about when something was tried to the utmost, or was it a genuine political allusion?

Furthermore, I read that a "Humpty-Dumpty" was an ale and brandy drink. Which I might have to try ordering next time I go to happy hour. And doesn't it make at least as much sense that it was about dropping your drink as about dropping an egg?

Now that I am thoroughly confused about what the phrase means, I still think about why RPW chose it. He was definitely thinking political, not egg, even though he says his novel is not about politics but merely set in politics. Oh how the mighty fall, etc. The interesting thing (to me) about Willie Stark is that I do not really think he changed all that much. A lot of commentary on the book goes on and on about how Willie of the noble intentions ends up just as corrupt as the next politician. I am not sure that is the case. (I would discuss this with my book group also.) I think Willie's handlers and hangers-on and minions are the ones who get corrupted, and begin to see Willie as someone who can give them something, be it a favor, or money, or power. With the exception of Sugar-Boy, who remains genuine. Dumb, but genuine, and not without his own special talents.

Willie, on the other hand, just seems to be more and more sure of how able he is to get things done, things he wants. He is more cocky than corrupt.

Highly highly highly recommend the book ... and currently am trying to figure out if I know anyone who's read it! As usual. At least Brian's reading this one with me, but now I've finished way ahead of him (he's working a lot, but I took a plane trip) so I have to wait a few hundred pages to have this conversation with him.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Just around the bend

NOW READING: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I am just liking this book so much more as I build my momentum into the home stretch. More and more great thoughts, quotable lines, and building to fever pitch of all the interpersonal relationships' fallout.

I like how narrator Jack has this really matter-of-fact and yet profound way of saying, in essence, "Wow we all screwed that up pretty much beyond belief."

I love me some Sadie Burke.

I'm not sure they make lines better than, "The Boss was dour as a teetotaling Scot."

I have definitely been impressed by the twists the plot has taken.

And the Twitch! It simply does not get any more awesome than the Twitch.

I officially recommend this book to you now, even though I have 100 pages left to go. (That is rare of me to do that. Sort of the parallel to my give-it-a-100-page-chance rule. Anything drastic could happen in 100 pages.)

"But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn't the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day." -- p. 534

Thursday, July 09, 2009

"It was just where I went"

NOW READING: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is one of those books I've been reading in fits and starts, but not because I want it to be that way. I am totally interested in it, I like it, and I want to devour it. I just seem to have too much going on and not enough laziness to my summer days to allow for reading it in longer stretches.

I totally think that long lazy summer stretches are the perfect way to read this novel. Perhaps this is in my mind at the moment because I am just finished reading about narrator Jack's summer romance, complete with porch swings, sultry swims and swan dives, plus a few dashed hopes.

Thematically, All the King's Men reminds me of War and Peace as it ponders the interconnectedness of mankind and history. Jack, the historical researcher, sees the ripple effects of men's actions, but he also senses a certain inevitability to it all. Even when it is not inevitable, it is out of our hands:

"And so my luck became my wisdom (as the luck of the damned human race becomes its wisdom and gets into the books and is taught in schools...)" -- p. 447

In addition to the bright jumble of melancholy that is human interaction and the ruminations on human history, Warren has delighted me here in the 400s with Jack's drive West. Specifically, his summation of what the West is.

"For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gices out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go." --pp. 405-406

I like reading a Southern writer's perspective on the West. The South is a mythical, misunderstood place too, just as the West is, full of legend and lore and history and mistakes and all sorts of other things. And I think both regions seem equally mysterious to some people who live in places like, you know, Long Island. I guess if nothing else, on some level the insular viewpoints of New Yorkers or New Englanders help the West to be that much more free and awesome. It's like their ignorance of things west of the Mississippi (or the Hudson) help fuel the frontier mentality that persists a little to this day. Even when you're escaping something, it takes courage to go West. It takes less courage to remain in your Long Island enclave for the eighth generation in a row.

At any rate, it is interesting to have a little bit about the West in this novel that had been completely Southern up to this point. As I have mentioned on this blog many a time, the South has seen way more than its fair share of excellent writers and stunning writing.

The strength of this book continues to be the way the narrator observes things in powerful sentences that make you feel both that only he could have stated the thought so well, but also that it captures what was on everyone's mind.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Speaking of speakeasies...

NOW READING: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Not just about politics, All the King's Men is so far a whirlwind of hotels, speakeasies, hot days full of bothered crowds, and long drives through the Louisiana night into one scandal or another. It is also a bit of a study of who takes charge of the law, making a reader question the very nature of government, power, relationships, and how those things intertwine. Robert Penn Warren does not flinch at the wild nature of man, and I might add that he is the master of spinning a phrase that really captures the inner, conflicted essence of people who seek power as they try to figure out who they are.

It's thrillingly cynical about the law, which I rather enjoy:

"'No,' the Boss corrected, 'I'm not a lawyer. I know some law. In fact, I know a lot of law. But I'm not a lawyer. That's why I can see what the law is like. It's like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain't ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone's to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind...'" - p. 204

On that note, and thinking about the very concept of a speakeasy, I must say that I still cannot for the love of all that is holy believe that there was ever Prohibition. Ever. Just, no. And by the way I wish those who refuse to listen to the "Legalize It" movement to let marijuana be legal would clue into the ridiculousnes, too.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

NOW READING: American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 by George F. Kennan
NOW FINISHED: Julian by Gore Vidal

is stunning and awesome. Perhaps I am just being a snob when I am sometimes surprised that I have never even heard of a book and then it turns out to be amazing and I want everyone to read it. I shouldn't be, though, since often when the masses like something it is less than spectacular. (I won't name any hideous, incredibly obvious examples that are popular at the moment, although I do think it would be funny if people searching for her or her trashtracular crap series were to come across my blog instead. Ha!)

Not usually a fan of historical fiction, I was drawn to Julian because I had decided to finally read Gore Vidal and I liked the idea of the plot: a Roman emperor attempting to squelch the wacky upstart religion of Christianity before it thoroughly took hold. I now plan to read more Gore. He plunges you into this old world much like Umberto Eco does in The Name of the Rose, perhaps even better. Despite the fact that I and many others born in the 20th century are unfamiliar with much of Greek and Roman history, the book is not at all off-putting, and you learn all about the gods and religions, the geography, and the goings on in the politics of the empire without ever being confused or feeling like you are having to learn history in order to read your book. You also learn who's the crazy cult magician, who means well, and who is just the empire drunk. It's good stuff.

Stirring, funny, philosophical, and a compelling drama as well, this novel is not to be missed.

Soon we will be moving on to 'W' -- another political novel! But my brief detour into the non-fiction and non-blog-project American Diplomacy is because I am taking the Foreign Service exam in a few days (I know, yay!) and I was reading a study guide of practice questions that asked about George Kennan's such-and-such political theory and I was like, "Who?" and then later that day while packing up our apartment I discovered that his book was among the paperbacks in the inherited pile I got from Grandma's house after she died at the end of my first year of law school, which pile has been waiting patiently on my bottom shelf, hidden and overshadowed (literally) by law school books for two years. So clearly that was a cosmic sign that I should read that really quick before moving on to All The King's Men!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"I could Turgenev": help me identify this quote please thanks

From the Totally Random Files...For those of you who don't know (really?) I have a tendency to jot down things I like/want to remember/want to revisit later. These days, most of this "jotting" happens electronically, on my Google Desktop or in my cell phone. But, there are still many scraps of paper and notepads from back in the day. I might add that I have been doing a good job of decluttering and getting the appropriate To Do things and reminders onto Goodreads, Netflix, my Google calendar, what have you.

Today, as we pack up the Brooklyn crib, I am stymied by something I clearly wrote down years ago. Here's what is says:

"'I could still travel, change jobs, read Turgenev. Any kind of love was possible.' - p. 314"

Now, I KNOW: why didn't I write the title? I suspect I was using the card on which this was written AS a bookmark and meant to transfer the whole thing to a notebook, duly citing the sources, within days if not minutes, though I clearly did not do that. The thing is, now I really want to know whence this quote comes. Particularly because I have now read Turgenev (as the 'T' author in my A-to-Z literary blog project), so that's fun, but also because it's bugging me.

Clues: it has to be from years ago because the card on the back of which this is written is from Euro Pane Bakery in Pasadena. Assuming I read the mystery book (not that kind of mystery book) before leaving L.A. it had to be out before end of 2002, latest. It sounds non-fictiony if not memoir/self-helpy. And there are two other things written (smaller, much less prominently) on the other side of the card: "We don't talk anymore. There is too much to say." - p. 412 And "There is a beauty in the world, though it's harsher than we ever expect it to be." - [page number indecipherable]. It is probable that all three quotes from the same book but I can't guarantee it.

It could be Elizabeth Berg, but if so I'm definitely not placing which one.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vast old empires and republics

NOW FINISHED: At the Foot of the Blue Mountains: Stories by Tajik Authors
NOW READING: Julian by Gore Vidal

Because I am currently totally interested in all things Tajikistan, that's why! And the book was pretty good, especially for a collection of short stories. I was looking for Tajik literature -- which by the way is hard to find, for reasons I shall discuss -- because I am very much seeking permission from the universe to travel to Tajikistan this August on a volunteer trip. It is hovering on the line between impossible and likely right now. I need to just make it so. But I need that permission.

So one of the problems is that the old Tajik Persian-derived literary heritage was sort of eradicated (I know, how can something be "sort of" eradicated? but you'll see that's my point) during the Soviet era. But it was mostly a language thing. And it wasn't even Farsi and Tajik (which is similar to Farsi) language books but Arabic books that were destroyed/confiscated, because the Tajiks had been invaded by Arabs long before Soviets. The Soviets were trying to get rid of Arabic language to standardize the Cyrillic alphabet. Quite a mess, of course, but then here in the U.S. people also tend to get bitten by the one-official-government-language bug pretty often, now don't they?

However, since there was a lot of oral poetry in said Tajik Persian-derived literary heritage, it is not actually gone and is mentioned a lot in At the Foot of the Blue Mountains. I really like this book. It is quite the good little introduction to many things Tajikistan. It contains a sampling of twentieth century stories and from authors born in various decades, but it was published in the 1980s so it still does not slam anything Russian or Soviet at all. However, a Tajik identity and the lifestyle there totally come through. There were several very interesting stories and only one or two duds.

Anyway, so I read that. And now I am on to 'V' - for Vidal! He is definitely one it is good to finally read after always hearing about him. The book, Julian, is about the 4th-century Roman emperor and his attempts to get rid of that wacky, newfangled religion that was rearing its head everywhere (Christianity). Normally I'm not one for historical fiction -- ugh -- but I had little choice with ol' Gore V. as that seems to be his specialty. Plus this one is a pretty obscure person and definitely snarky about the religious stuff -- fun!

In other literary news, for those of you who were jealous back when I was reading Infinite Jest and swore to yourselves that you, too, would tackle DFW's tome, this summer is your chance!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

With apologies to Mr. Chatfield

NOW FINISHED: The Centaur by John Updike

So, it's called The Centaur because the entire book is an allusion to the Greek mythological race of half-horse half-people, which myth I have apparently entirely forgotten. In fact, as I went along reading the book, there were a couple of times when Updike blatantly told a magically real encounter between two characters and I knew this, say, girls' coach/p.e. teacher was supposed to represent a mythological character. It was totally spelled out. Not until the end of the book did I come across an index of mythological characters to whom Updike had merely alluded throughout the book, and the pages on which they appeared -- there were lots. The index contained a list of names about fifty times longer than the list I would have written of mythological characters appearing in the novel.

OK, so now that we know I had absolutely zero idea of what was going on in the subtext, how was the actual text of the book? Not bad. A little weird at first but after getting more comfortable with the characters it's a much better experience. It's essentially three days in the life of this father and son, with lots of small-town drama, hints of Updike's long-simmering love for New York City above all other locales, a keen understanding of what goes through the minds of high-school students and faculty, and plenty of social commentary. But it's also a totally novelly novel, in that early twentieth century way (i.e. when the mindless churned-out crap fiction was still pulp).

Updike, like Forster before him in this A-to-Z blog project of mine, has an uncanny way of writing along, you know, telling the story, lah-di-dah, and then BAM! He hits you with an amazingly well written line and you think, Ahhh, this is why he's a famous and well-renowned writer whose praises are regularly sung.

Next up, V, another author who seems in my head to be of the same ilk as Updike, for whatever reason. I'm currently pausing from the project as I read At the Foot of the Blue Mountains: Stories by Tajik Authors. This is inspired by a trip to Tajikistan in August that I really, really, really want to do with Habitat for Humanity and which I am still pursuing but about which I am losing more hope by the minute. I think Mr. Centaur Biology Teacher would have a thing or two to say to me about that loss of hope, actually.

In summary, The Centaur is sort of like Ulysses meets Breaking Bad.

And I want to become smarter and then read it again. But I totally respect that Updike a)just writes the hell out of it anyway, without stopping to explain every last thing and b)writes such a great simple story, too, that you have to be smarter than a lot of people to even realize that you need to get depressed about everything you're missing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


now finished: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

This was a quick read (unlike many a Russian). While it may seem simple, it definitely has a lot of statements about humanity, families, politics, generations, interpersonal relationships, and the like. Those are never as simple as they seem, of course.

It's funny (now, to me) that this novel caused such controversy at the time. Older conservatives thought Turgenev was mocking the older generation whose time had come and gone, and putting the young radical on a pedestal. Younger radicals thought he made a caricature of the young whippersnapper who thought he knew better than everyone and hated everything around him. Turgenev himself said he wasn't quite doing either and had mixed feelings about the times that were a-changin'. For these reasons, we could all obviously get introspective and analytical while reading the novel.

Bazarov and Arkadii (mostly Bazarov) get bored visiting the parents' countryside peasant-laden farms. It sounds like a nice idea, Bazarov muses, to live that idyllic life with solitude and all, "but no--you're consumed by boredom. One wants to come into contact with people, if only to criticize them, but at least to come into contact with them."

See, how can I fully dislike Bazarov, when I am so much like him? Not that I wouldn't rather be more like Arkadii, whose reply is:

"One ought to organize one's life so that every moment in it is significant." -- p. 134

The only thing I didn't like about reading this was that occasionally the language got that forced feel it gets when you just know the original is not quite translatable. One of my goals is to learn Russian so that I can read all the fantastic Russian literature in the original language. I kind of want that to be my first post-law school project. Wouldn't mind taking a job in Moscow, either, come to think of it.

Young Bazarov realizes himself toward the end that the jig is up. Basically, he may have some right ideas, and some of his skills may even save people, but being a jerk who's incapable of some soul-searching never helped anyone. He learns that lesson a bit too late.

Thank you for the invitation, Hofstra Anna Sergeevna, and for your flattering estimation of my conversational talents. But I think I've already been moving in a sphere that isn't my own for too long. Flying fish can stay aloft for a while, but sonner or later they have to splash back into the water. Allow me to swim in my own element, too. -- p. 191

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Century Clubs and Beetle Gazing

now reading: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

When I used to have time to read a lot of books, especially when I worked at Borders and would start books for a million different reasons including being asked to read them by other people for quasi-professional reasons (e.g. getting more free books from the publishers' marketing reps), I needed to come up with a way to give a book a fair shake before throwing it across the room. Yes, it is wonderful and fabulous when a book hooks you on from the first page, but then again, heroin hooks you from the first "page," too, doesn't it? And we see how well that turns out. Perhaps an acquired taste (coffee, beer, marijuana) can be better or at least less destructive.

There is also the sheer length of some books to consider. Do you really know on page ten of Moby Dick what you are going to ultimately think about it? Let alone War and Peace or Infinite Jest. You might already like them or dislike them at that point, but you cannot yet fully understand/appreciate them. At such a fraction of the whole I would be uncomfortable rejecting a book. And we cannot forget either books such as The Corrections. That book starts out weird, and I've had quite a few people tell me they started it and "couldn't get into it" or some such thing. But the first -- I forget how many, twenty? thirty? more? -- pages are in fact "weird" but there is a REASON and it is so genius and I might add part of the point of that magnificent book. Like, part of the point so much that I can't explain why it has to start that way without ruining something for you when you read it. I sometimes wonder if some asshats on the Pulitzer committee that year "couldn't get into it" and that's why they mistakenly awarded the Pulitzer to Empire Falls instead?

But how much is enough of a chance to give a book I hate? I eventually settled on the 100 pages rule. If, after a hundred pages, I really do not like the book and can see no redeeming qualities in it and truly do not want to waste my life finishing it, then I am allowed to throw it across the room. Most recently I did this with Alice Sebold's second novel, The Almost Moon, or, as I prefer to think of it, The Almost Book Worth Reading. I actually got further than 100 pages with that one, but it just kept getting worse, actually. Note that the completion of 100 pages is a necessary but not sufficient requirement. There may be other overriding reasons that compel me to finish a book or for which I will consider going on after 100 pages. Most recently this happened with The Puttermesser Papers, because I had unfortunately and terribly misguidedly chosen Cynthia Ozick for my 'O' author in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project and so it was Too Late. UGH.

The point is that because of my 100 pages rule, I have decided that 100 pages is also a good time point at which to reflect on what I think of the book I'm reading here on the blog. And it just so happens that yesterday I got to page 100 in Fathers and Sons.

I am reading it quickly -- but it goes quickly. It also REALLY makes me want to learn Russian, because as is generally the case when I read Russian authors, I am so aware I am reading a translation. That was the less the case with War and Peace than others, because I guess in order to publish a translation of War and Peace you do have to be damn good, but even then there were moments. It's just bound to happen because of the patronymics and the way the language is used differently to talk to different people and such. I totally think learning Russian is going to be one of my first post-law school projects.

So in Fathers and Sons we've got Arkadii and his good friend Bazarov -- or is he such a good friend? -- hanging out at Arkadii's father's country estate. Bazarov is basically telling all the old guys, like the father and uncle, that they are outdated and have no idea what's up with the philosophical and political realities of the day. Bazarov is a nihilist, and Arkadii is trying to be a nihilist to be as cool as his friend, and the father and uncle are a mix of baffled and annoyed by this young whippersnapper who does not appreciate anything (including art and nature), and the whole scenario really shows us that generations have always fought with the generation before and the more things change -- well, you know the rest.

"In earlier times, young people had to study -- they didn't want to be taken for ignoramuses, so they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now one just has to say, 'Everything on earth is absurd!' and the deed is done -- young people are overjoyed. In fact, they were simply dolts before, whereas now they've suddenly become nihilists." --p. 56

I've been considering going to spend some time in Phoenix soon, what with the end of law school and not having a job or money to pay the rent in New York or any idea what to do next. Basically, I might totally be like Arkadii Kirsanov a mere few weeks from now: returning home to the parents' pad with all my worldly, educated, big city ideas but clearly not able to do anything with them.

The friend, Bazarov, is kind of a jackass. And if Brian and I go to Phoenix, I won't be bringing a jackass. In fact, for us the roles might be reversed: I might be more of a nihilist (and/or more of a pessimistic dolt) than Brian is. But Bazarov is funny, despite his pretense of not caring about anything and being above it all. He is a scientist becoming a doctor and he likes to wander around the forest examining trees and cutting open frogs. That is more important to him than learning about people and what they feel -- and certainly more important than love or any silly notions of a soul. Things might change after page 100; they are spending quite a bit of time with the beautiful Mrs. Odintsov... but for the moment, he still feels this way.

"And what's all this about mysterious relationships between men and women? We physiologists know what these relationships are. You study the anatomy of the eye: where does that enigmatic gaze, as you put it, come from? The rest is all romanticism, nonsense, aesthetic garbage. We'd be much better off going and looking at the beetle." -- p.34

So what about y'all? Do you stop books you have started? Do you have any guidelines for doing so? Have you experienced the ultimate satisfaction of throwing a book across the room? (Which can also be done at the end of a book, of course.) Do tell!