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.