Archive for January, 2010

2010 was going to be the year I only read a few books at a time. I’m going to change that to: the spring of 2010 will be when I’m only reading a few books at a time. Also, 2010 was going to be the year in which I blogged about books as I finished them, instead of having a monster stack at the end of December. January 23rd, ten books read, none of them blogged.

in progress:
Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser. The dangers of Twitter, where book recommendations fly in every few minutes, all from people with tastes I share. I’m about halfway through: the title story, about a laughing game a group of kids get going, is so good that the rest of the book could coast and I’d still think it is great.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud. I loved The Emperor’s Children, and so far (which is not far yet), I’m enjoying the characters in this novel. Still waiting for a story to show up, but it’s early on and the pacing is working for me.
Lowboy by John Wray. The library has had the novel, all black and seductive, propped up in a featured new-release spot a dozen times during my recent visits. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to pick it up—a review set me off? After a year with so many characters with diagnosed mental illnesses a reluctance to tackle a paranoid schizophrenic? Cranky left-coast attitude at yet another book set in NYC? None of those was enough to sustain my resistance when I walked over the hill to the library and my requested book, claimed to be in, was not yet in. The horror. Anyway: totally into it, can imagine myself finishing it tonight or tomorrow, understand the raves.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Kramer’s Should You Leave? had a huge spoiler in it, but Copperfield’s a classic, and I deserve what I get for not having read it yet. Still enjoying it, still amused by Dickens’s urge to make his characters cry every three pages (so, about once per day on my reading schedule).
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. Finally, shit is starting to get weird. I’m going to have to check this movie out again after I’m finished—the book feels like it would end up as a horror movie, and I don’t recall being that horrified. I might have been distracted by Isabelle Huppert and her freckled shoulders.
Making Monsters by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters. Started after hearing Watters on the radio and reading the NYT piece excerpted from the new book. This one, older and co-wrote, was right there on the shelf at the library. Shiny. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but so far, in arguing against an extremist stance, the book itself is lacking any shades of gray whatsoever.
Winnicott: Life and Work by F. Robert Rodman. Only a day in, and despite my attempts to stick to one non-memoir non-fiction work at a time. It was looking at me beseechingly, I swear. My delighted interest in Winnicott continues, and this, the first biography I’ve grabbed, is already paying out. If I were a different sort of writer, I would grab this man’s life in a heartbeat for fiction. I’m hoping someone has, and it’s just a matter of time before I stumble on their book.

carefully avoiding for the moment:
–Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Boyd’s Any Human Heart are both in my house, waiting for me to finish Dangerous Laughter and Lowboy.
–I’m making myself finish the massive Winnicott bio before I allow the next wave of psychology curiosity to wash over me: the Kramer book has made me mad for Harry Stack Sullivan. Parataxic distortion—how great is that? Even saying it makes me giddy.
–Very close to the top of my library request queue: The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg because of this interview. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson because of something I read on the internet and now don’t remember. Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. because after reading the original Attenberg link, I followed another one. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter because I read, surprise! on the internet that it’s funny and the stack is tilting a wee serious at the moment.


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At long last, the end: it was hard to write most of these, to figure out a way to gush without saying the same things over and over again. I gave up and used the heady adjectives (lovely lovely beautiful) often—they are accurate.

    lovely lyrical novels:

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
Oh how I loved the first half of this. And I very much liked the second half. It spun off at the end (particularly the last 20 pages or so), but I’m still going to decide I liked it a lot. The writing is consistently impressive and dense, but never in a way that was a chore to read. Content-wise, this is a tough sell: child sexual abuse, suicide, shame like a shroud over everything. A reviewer somewhere said it’s the most beautiful writing about child abuse ever, and I agree. Horrible subject, gorgeous sentences. I’m looking forward to Chee’s second novel (later this year?).

Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like.

Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
It took me almost 150 pages to get hooked on this book (and multiple renewals from the library), but those last 100 pages absolutely flew—I finished it in one long sitting. Lark and Termite are siblings from the same mother: Lark at 17 takes care of Termite, a few years younger, who is thoroughly disabled but also gifted in some occasionally supernatural ways. The aunt, Nonie, who is raising them, also gets her own sections, as does Robert, Termite’s father, in Korea during the massacre at No Gun Ri. The sections with Nonie/Lark/Termite take place during a few days in 1959, with flashbacks to Korea ten years before. For a book that felt static to me for so long, there is a lot of plot (I didn’t realize how much until I sat down to write up my notes on it) and layered relationships that were complex but organic. Bonus points for an unbelievably beautiful ending with Termite’s shadowy perspective; a hot, weird—and unexpected—sex scene, and at least in hardback, a fantastic cover design.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
I’ve now tried and discarded a dozen sentences right here, so I’m going to try again in small pieces that won’t help anyone decide if they are interested in the book or not. The parts of this book I liked caused me to think about my life in a different way. The parts I didn’t like I could barely keep my eyes open for. This happened before with Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Both books influenced me to make decisions that I’m not sure were the best ones, but they were the choices that felt right at the time. The books were like friends urging me to follow my instincts. I’m not sure if they are the sorts of friends I should be listening to. (Parts I liked: the relationship, the setting, the peripheral characters and their situations. The other parts: the politics and the history, both of which felt insufficiently tied to the primary story.) I can’t tell you if this is a good book or a great book or a bad book: it was so personally affecting that I have no perspective on it.

It was enough for me to see her to realize that, despite my knowing that any relationship with the bad girl was doomed to failure, the only thing I really wanted in life with the passion others bring to the pursuit of fortune, glory, success, power, was having her, with all her lies, entanglements, egotism, and disappearances.

You’re very nice but you have a terrible defect: lack of ambition. You’re satisfied with what you have, aren’t you? But it isn’t anything, good boy.

    read too much/high expectation ruination:

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I want to like Winterson so much more than I do, and I keep trying, following the recommendation trail. I woke up excited one morning, fresh from a dream realization that I did really like her books, the ones about British lesbians . . . that are written by Sarah Waters.

Underworld by Don DeLillo
I’m coming around a bit in that I’m glad I read it, but when asked about The Falling Man a few days ago (which I haven’t read), I realized that it might have permanently put me off DeLillo.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The first of a few that are really good books, but came with so much hype that it would have been a miracle if they survived the expectations I had for them. It’s a tiny book, full of neat, tight writing. I had a hard time keeping the characters distinct. Had I not been waiting for a Life-Changing Literary Experience the whole time, I think I would have loved this rather than liking it thoroughly.

I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending though the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
All of the above, minus the “tiny” part. Ian and others warned me that the book doesn’t answer all the questions it raises (or even resolve the basic conflicts—I don’t expect answers or clean conclusions). Again, I had a good time reading this, falling repeatedly into dozens-of-pages sprees when I meant to sit down and read for a few minutes at most. At 600+ pages, there is room for that sort of reverie. After the last page, however, I feel like it missed the fantastic mark for me by not giving back enough for the time and attention and thought that I gave it. I’m working with a bias against magical realism, too, so I’m not sure there is a way that the novel could have been a complete success for me. Several scenes—and not just the horrific ones—will stick with me for years.

I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
There is no way to write with any detail about my problems with this novel without spoiling it, so I’ll stick to this: I didn’t believe it. My belief was suspended, frequently, to the point that I couldn’t even commit to the characters after around the mid-point. This surprised me: I love Moore, love everything I’ve ever read by her, own five of her books, and made reading goals for 2010 that will allow me to reread all five. I’m not sure what happened with this one, and I’m tempted to pretend that it’s not there, especially after my recent reread of Self-Help, which has held up beautifully.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
After having to read All the Pretty Horses for a class, I swore I would never read McCarthy again. We are a bad match, and I know much of what I dislike about his writing is what others admire. So I had no plans to read The Road, but then everyone and everyone raved about it, and there was a loaner copy floating around, and I caved. I admit: I wanted to know what was going to happen next pretty much the entire way through, and finished the book quickly. It was scary and tense. I did not hate it. However: the movie trailer had more characterization (have not and am not planning to see the movie), the plot is on a loop (road, hungry, find a place, hide, road), the huge gaps got in the way, and his stylistic choices—lack of punctuation, breaks between each paragraph, dialogue consisting of the same 20 words for nearly 300 pages—drove me up the wall. Also, I was comparing it to Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (another post-apocalyptic American roadtrip novel), which I liked and used apostrophes, the entire time.

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This one hurts the most to write. I liked everything about the book, dug the voice and the tone and the characters and nerd-cultural touches and the history I knew nothing about. I even cried a little at the end. So what’s the problem? I read it too late: for over a year I heard about how perfect the novel is, and I had my own high hopes going in (based on how much I loved Diaz’s Drown). It was merely fabulous, only great. It’s 98% perfect, and I would recommend it to anyone (has anyone not read this yet?). It’s not Diaz’s fault this book isn’t in my next section—it’s mine for reading literally a dozen reviews before I read the book. Next one, I swear, I’ll read on release.

    top ten:

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom
I think this was the only book I reread in 2009, and only because Lorelei Lee mentioned rereading this after every breakup in The Rumpus, and it was on the shelf, so I grabbed it. It yanked tears out of me several times, great barbed waves of them at the beginning and end. I love the aimless floundering of the main character (and the way Bloom explores failure), the inability to figure out how to make connections. Good stuff all around, and exactly what I needed at the time I read it—that’s something all the remaining novels share: in addition to being beautiful books, they were the books I needed at the time they showed up.

He read the first one all the way through and breathed in the love, that hot, hurting feeling under your ribs, love that made him sneak out of his barracks and slide past his cracker sergeant, risking court-martial for one of Arlene’s kisses through a chain-link fence, going to sleep with a rust-flecked diamond pressed into his face. Love that made life matter, even when you were just looking back at it.

And surely I cannot tell him that I’m no more good for me or for him than I ever was, that I will disappoint and confuse him, that I’ve been alone my whole life, and that it may really be too hard and too late, not even desirable, after such long, familiar cold, to be known, and heard, and seen.

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
Lyrical, suspenseful, lovely. He worked on my assumptions repeatedly (in a way that no book since Oscar and Lucinda, that heartbreaking bastard, has), then kept a fairly quiet story so taut that I could scarcely stand to put it down at the cliffhangers. All with unceasingly beautiful language, and like he was giving me a little gift, a few jabs at Fresno. I’ve tried shoving this book on friends, but it’s hard to do without giving away any of what made it so surprising and fulfilling.

Instead, we hid our fears. Just as my mother hid a lock of her dead brother’s hair in the throat of her high-collared Sunday dress, in a pocket she had sewn there. You cannot go around in grief and panic every day; people will not let you, they will coax you with tea and tell you to move on, bake cakes and paint walls. You can hardly blame them; after all, we learned long ago that the world would fall apart and the cities would be left to the animals and the clambering vines if grief, like a mad king, were allowed to ascend the throne. So what you do is you let them coax you. You bake the cake and paint the wall and smile; you buy a new freezer as if you now had a plan for the future. And secretly—in the early morning—you sew a pocket in your skin. At the hollow of your throat. So that every time you smile, or nod your head at a teacher meeting, or bend over to pick up a fallen spoon, it presses and pricks and stings and you know you’ve not moved on. You never even planned to.

Really now, how can you not read it after that?

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
Another case of good timing—I really liked this little book, and in a year full of more serious and somber novels, it was the standout comic work. The narrator is stuck, while en route to his estranged gay daughter’s wedding, in O’Hare after a series of routine flight disasters. The history of his relationship with his daughter and her mother comes out over the course of a very funny letter to the airline describing the hell of being stuck overnight in an airport, summarizing his life and work as a translator, and roughly translating chunks of the Polish novel he has with him. Endearing, hilarious, and well-managed.
for the funny, I give you this:

Perhaps my beef is actually with Senor Fabio Eurotrash who rolled off a foam-strewn Ibiza dancefloor at six A.M. with sixteen Red-Bull-and-vodkas still fizzing in his gut and whose clumsy pre-takeoff attempt at self-fellatio in Seat 3A forced an interminable delay while his pretzeled ass was removed from the plane.

for the touching balance, this:

’I mean, how can one puny word like that encompass all the shit you did—I don’t mean you, I mean us, everyone, me—but also all the, all the things you didn’t do? It’s the inactions that keep you up at night. The actions, they’re done. They’re done. The inactions, they never go away. They just hang there. They rot. How is sorry supposed to stretch across all that?’

Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
I’ve heard (good lord have I heard) all the problems that people have with Powers: he overwrites, his characters are stiff, his situations strange. And I can see that—sometimes he lapses into a strange poetic language that doesn’t quite fit, and there have been times when I disliked particular characters or was taken off guard by plot twists in the two novels (this one and The Echo Maker) I’ve read. None of those factors come close to denting my enjoyment at reading what are primarily books about big ideas. Generosity made me think about the nature of happiness and what it means that I prefer realist fiction—and why we even call it that when nothing is ever that explicable in reality. I’ve said and heard the thought “it’s too bad that [thing that actually happened] wouldn’t be believable in fiction,” and I can’t count the number of times in my own stories or stories I’m critiquing that an event that occurred has been highlighted as unbelievable. The amount of coincidence and happenstance present in most lives knocks them clean out of literary fiction. Powers also digs around in ideas about happiness, exploring why, if happiness is such a good thing, humans are not set up genetically to feel it as often as would seem optimal. In the background, smaller ideas spin: celebrity, writing advice in the age of blogs, the role of money in science, and how the constant stream of information affects the timelines of stories and their responses. I came out of this book thoroughly satisfied with the story and characters, questioning some assumptions I had about all the above topics, and eager to continue reading both Powers and outside works on the topics he wrote about.

This is what the Algerian tells me: live first, decide later. Love the genre that you most suspect. Good judgment will spare you nothing, least of all your life. Flow, words: there’s only one story, and it’s filled with doubles. The time for deciding how much you like it is after you’re dead.

Right around Elkhart, Russell concludes that truth laughs at narrative design. Realism—the whole threadbare patch job of consoling conventions—is like one of those painkillers that gets you addicted without helping anything. In reality, a million things happen all at once for no good reason, until some idiot texting on his cell plows into you on the expressway in northern Indiana. The End. Not exactly The Great Gatsby. Sales: zip. Critical response: total bewilderment. A failed avant-garde experiment. Not even a decent allegory. Even the cutout bin doesn’t want it.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
I would fail a quiz on Gravity’s Rainbow. There are elements that were completely beyond my comprehension, a hundred things I’m sure I missed. I expected to miss even more. In the midst of all my confusion, however, I found several stories and characters and countless images that are going to stay with me forever. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I can think of, and I could talk for an hour about the things that aggravated me, but I can recommend any single page to everyone—Pynchon blew me away with his sentences, page by page, and I found myself reading lines aloud constantly, excited and stunned with what he was doing with words.

While neo-Potemkins ranged the deep Arctic for her, skilled and technocratic wolves erecting settlements out of tundra, entire urban abstractions out of the ice and snow, bold Tchitcherine was back at the capital, snuggled away in her dacha, where they played at fisherman and fish, terrorist and State, explorer and edge of the wave-green world.

She may know a little, may think of herself, face and body, as ‘pretty’ . . . but he could never tell her all the rest, how many other living things, birds, nights smelling of grass and rain, sunlit moments of simple peace, also gather in what she is to him. Was. He is losing more than single Jessica: he’s losing a full range of life, of being for the first time at ease in the Creation. Going back to winter now, drawing back into his single envelope. The effort it takes to extend any further is more than he can make alone.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
The only book to make it into my dreams while I was reading it last year—appropriate, because “dreamlike” is how I would describe it. Not the standard hazy magical version, either, but like my personal dreams. I recognize the characters (though they aren’t acting exactly like themselves as I know them), the setting seems familiar (if tilted five degrees off of reality), and although I’m along for the ride, nothing is happening the way that it should and always has and I am powerless to stop or predict it. And when they are over, I sit up and think, what the hell was that? and can’t get it out of my head.
The novel is weird, enthralling, and so unpredictable that I couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen on the next page if my life depended on it. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and one that is pushing me to Millet’s other books.

Suffering ignites the spark of contact with the sublime and offers proof of humanity, he was thinking. He wondered why it had been given to him to see history unfold, when it would have been so much more usual to die.
Powerful people have the luxury of designing the way they suffer, he thought, while the weak have the manner of their suffering forced upon them. But neither category has much daily business with happiness.
It is suffering, he thought, that is the engine of transfiguration, a hub around which the captive self turns.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
A creepy, tightly interwoven tale of identity and how we recognize each other. There are glowing reviews everywhere about this, and unlike with Oscar Wao, I had the good sense to ignore most of them until after I read the book. Trying to write down the basic plot for my notes nearly did me in, yet I didn’t have a moment of confusion while reading. I got to a point in the book where I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I finished, both because it gets scary and the narrative pull was strong enough to throw me off my usual patterns. One of the very few books I could imagine gifting to my most hardcore litfic friends, the primarily nonfiction occasional reader pals I have, and my genre-junkie family members.

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff—there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are—you are increasingly aware—units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison
All of the reviews in the world couldn’t get me to this beautiful little gem of a book until it swept the Tournament of Books last year. At the same time that it’s a one-sitting novel-ette margin-stretched to fill its pages, it’s as heavy and devastating as a novel three times its length. Although I haven’t read Beloved yet (I know, I know), I did get through a decent amount of Morrison in college: Sula, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and then Love a few years ago on my own. None of it did much for me, and Love was the last straw. So thanks, ToB, for grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me until I listened. It’s short, it’s lovely, it has a perfect ending, and it will take you maybe two hours to read. The first chapter is rough going in terms of understanding plot events that haven’t occurred yet, but the voices alternate and it’s only a few pages long, so stick with it.

Is this dying mine alone? Is the clawing feathery thing the only life in me? You will tell me. You have the outside dark as well. And when I see you and fall into you I know I am live. Sudden it is not like before when I am always in fright. I am not afraid of anything now. The sun’s going leaves darkness behind and the dark is me. Is we. Is my home.

    and two perfect novels:

Stoner by John Williams
For my internet demographic, Stoner is the 2009 literary equivalent of surprise kitty, as close litblogs and book sites get to a firestorm of a book meme. Before 2009, I had maybe heard of it once or twice, probably skimming blogs (not following the linked reviews), but I couldn’t have told you a thing about it, from author to any idea of the story. And that’s how it should be. Very little happens in Stoner, and I’m glad I knew almost nothing about it other than readers and writers that I respect could hardly get the words out they were so moved by the book. I could tell you specific things I appreciated, but that would entail me telling you everything about the book, and then picking up the book and reading every single page out loud. A growing crowd of serious readers love this book; I’m joining them in proclaiming it perfect.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
My very helpful notes for Out Stealing Horses, in their entirety: “flawless.” There isn’t a word of this short book that I would wish changed. I’m not going to describe the plot or the characters (it’s difficult to think of a book that sounds as dull in description—maybe Stoner), but only say that after it was over, I felt like I had lost a life that I never lived, had lost a person who never existed. I’ve felt that a few times before—at the end of Infinite Jest, at the end of The Magic Mountain (oh god, Hans Castorp), Lolita, and Love in the Time of Cholera. When I think of those books, the first jolt of remembrance that comes to me isn’t of my reading experience or the quality of the prose or plot, but a stab of grief over losing people I knew and loved. I don’t know if Out Stealing Horses has what it takes to be a classic or if it will resonate with as many people, but Petterson gave me an entire world in one character. I can’t ask for more than that.

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    the fun stuff:

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
(I’m going to be using the word “fun” a lot for the next batch of books.) Fun! One of the few books this year that I could continue reading while laboring on cardio machines (that takes catchy writing and a good dose of tension). My memory of how amusing this was is affected, however, by reading Ames and Dean Haspiel’s The Alcoholic a little while after—some of the things that were hilarious in Wake Up, Sir! became less so when recast in the darker graphic novel.

Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno
Sweet teenager Brian drifts through outsider teen issues on the punk edge of things (after starting in a more metal position). Well-developed and believable characters—I was rooting for Brian to get together with the initial love interest, but I also liked the second one. The book could have taken on a little more plot or usage of the charming minor characters. “Indie publisher” can now be code for “sometimes distracted by typos.”

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lancaster
By the end, I understood the reasoning and purpose behind making the language so elevated and obnoxious. Until then, however, I had to push myself to keep getting through occasional paragraphs of it. Lancaster does a great job with the ultra-creepy narrator, dropping in details at a perfect rate. Excellent foodie writing, and this quote:

I have drawn the following inference, that the limits to pleasure are as yet neither known nor fixed. –Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
Fun! And because I didn’t read any blurbs, very surprising when it turned into a completely different genre than I expected. A few of the characters went a tad flat in the middle, but there are so many vibrant, developed characters and such a great narrative tension, that the patches of flatness didn’t detract from my enjoyment. One of the few books this year I had to stay up late to finish because I was getting too scared/anxious to not know the ending. Two quotes.

Nothing was truly unbearable if you had something to read.

Winging it: the key to creative inspiration. Maybe what writers really needed wasn’t encouragement, mentoring, or even stern deadlines, but immediate ratcheting anxiety. Make something up and make it work, or you’ll be sorry.

The Handmaid of Desire by John L’Heureux
An academic/literary satire with a sharp, exaggerated visiting writer (who uses the resident professors and their spouses as pawns in her writing) at the center. I dig academic satire, particularly when combined with writers. Such a fast read, and one that made me want to go visit Stanford.

Meanwhile Olga paced the floor, and paced. She was a fraud, a fake. She could no longer think and she could no longer write and she was a failure as a human being as well. . . . And Olga, the failure, paced. She drank tea and paced. In desperation, she prayed, and went back to pacing. This was always the way before a breakthrough, but how many times and for how long could she survive these acts of faith? She paced, waiting.

The Beach by Alex Garland
It’s trying hard not to be, but a fun trashy vacation read. The sense of proportion is all wacky—huge amounts of book spent describing things that weren’t that interesting and didn’t contribute so much to the resolution. All in all, it was a pretty decent novel to find on the street (sidewalk fiction is usually romance/mystery/BAD).

You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Cotton candy: sweet, not substantial, too much at a time and it’s cloying and overwhelming. But something I’m okay eating a couple times a year (a woman cannot live off of carrots alone). I’m not going to remember much of the plot (a band, relationships, a curiously underplayed sick kangaroo living in a bathtub), and that’s fine because it was fun while it lasted.

The Treatment by Daniel Menaker
Jake Singer, a high-school teacher at a posh private school in NY, is seeing an abrasive Freudian psychotherapist, Dr. Morales. Jake goes through some work and relationship issues, with Morales always questioning his every move and popping up in his imagination. It was fun, but there is something off I couldn’t put my finger on. I like all the characters, they all seem fleshed out, the situations were interesting, great dialogue/setting, but it never really came together. I would read Menaker again and see if it was just an issue I was having those few days.

Even the banality of evil is outstripped by the banality of anxiety neurosis.

The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Sam Pulsifer is a naughty protagonist, released from a jaunt in prison after burning down Emily Dickinson’s house and inadvertently killing two people (not a major spoiler: that’s all declared right off the top). He gets into trouble, then more trouble, then a whole bunch more trouble. Shades towards the goofy: I was hoping for that at the time. I read this in the shadow of a few massive serious books, and I think that’s the ideal situation for it.

There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs: A Memoirist’s Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like. All of this made me feel better about myself, and I was grateful to the books for teaching me—without my even having to read them—that there were people in the world more desperate, more self-absorbed, more boring than I was.

. . . detail exists not only to make us remember the things we don’t want to, but to remind us that there are some things we don’t deserve to forget.

The English Major by Jim Harrison
Talked about it here.

He had said, in effect, ‘Yours is an American story. You lose your life’s long-term substance, your wife and farm and dog. You are cut loose. At your age you can’t think of new worlds to conquer or big-deal adventures in far-flung places. The only real adventure in most people’s life is adultery.’

It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan
Strange, almost indescribable cult novel. The narrator is a stalled or quit painter who once upon a time was very good—so good that his stolen paintings are being passed off as old master’s—but now sits in the park all day having reveries wherein he is transported in time and inhabits other people’s bodies. I don’t know how to sum this up at all. The ending is beyond description, or at least my description. Somehow, it all comes together, and all the magical stuff worked.

    not what I expected:

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
I read about this one on a list of underappreciated novels, so when the library called me in to pick up my request and it turned out to have a big YOUNG ADULT sticker on it, I was surprised. For all the good novels in the genre, I tend to not appreciate them too much, particularly the lesson-y and neat conclusions. So imagine my surprise when I loved the hell out of this. Nomi Nickel’s family is disappearing: Tash, her rebellious punk/hippie sister has run away with her boyfriend; Trudie, her mother, also took off; and Ray, her father, has retreated to an affectless but affectionate distance. Nomi’s best friends Lids is ensconced in the hospital with a probably psychosomatic illness that renders her motionless and sensitive. Here’s the best part: they are all Mennonites, in a Mennonite community.

Transmission by Hari Kunzru
An Indian programmer with limited social skills finds himself trapped by his own high expectations of success (he’s lied to his entire family back home) when he’s actually stuck by crappy exploitative employers in the US. He manufactures a computer virus in order to solve it and get credit, but it gets way, way out of hand. I think I was expecting a serious examination of the effect of technology on relationships (this is from the same list as A Complicated Kindness), but this is more of an enjoyable romp.

Anyone on foot in suburban California is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill or jogging.

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
Surprise! From the same list as the previous two. I knew almost nothing about this before I picked it up, and that is exactly how it should be. Loved it and have bought two Wolitzer books since.

You sound bitter, Bone would say.
That’s because I am, I would tell him.
Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.
‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’
And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Why did I think that this wouldn’t be that scary? I stopped reading it before bed because the descriptions of the pounding on the doors and cold spots and whispery beyond-the-wall sounds were enough to make me want to sleep with the lights on. Excellent characterization.

    the pain, both of my own doing:

Schlock: A Food Service Melodrama
I debated adding these to the list, but they are novel-length, and I read them.

Bad Novel II
Not as bad as I thought it might be, but also not good. Flat, basic, boring language, with dialogue that makes me want to put a Uniball Micro-point right in my eye. And missing transitions/out of order in places. I’ve been trying to use it as editing practice over the year, but it pains me so deeply that it’s hard to deal with it. Might be time to let this one go.

    Richard Price binge:

Possibly the first book labeled “Mystery” that I’ve ever read. And there was a mystery that I didn’t know the answer to until just before I was told, but there was so much more going on here. I’d heard it before, but no kidding: Price can write dialogue that is astonishingly life-like. Good memorable characters and locations, and fast for a big book.

Pain is the chisel with which we sculpt ourselves into who we become.

Lush Life
Again, the dialogue is amazing. He manages to address things like gentrification and half-assed artistic striving and race/class in the background of big vigorous plots. Having read two of his novels now, however, I can see where he might have a little rut—several of the characters seemed pretty familiar (cops/kids) and though it didn’t make me enjoy it any less, it was strange to occasionally confuse character traits from the earlier book.

Too long, but I enjoyed it. He takes on the concept of confession and who you choose to believe, and that theme played nicely against Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries (which I was reading at the same time). It was a lot of Price at once—I read all three books in a month, and my calculator says that’s 1504 pages.

Next time: the end of my 2009-in-review, including my favorites in fiction.

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After considering the list of 58 novels I read in 2009, I decided to pick 15 or so to review and let the rest of them sit quietly in an ignored pile. Then Mo, a terrible influence, convinced me to suck it up and do all the year’s books, break the wrap-up into a few parts. I’ve tried to split the books into several groupings (though not all of them fit—they are at the end of today’s post). The final part will include a traditional favorites/recommended list, but with a very few exceptions, I liked or at least appreciated the majority of the novels I read last year. Novels are one of the things I live for, and I’m glad I’m giving myself the chance to revisit so many of them. This may take forever. Enjoy!

    didn’t see that coming: big plots

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock
A big, muscular, multi-character plotty first novel. Newell, one of the most obnoxious children I’ve ever read, goes missing from his home in Las Vegas. Previously well-matched parents Lorraine and Franklin fall apart in their own ways. Bock gives detailed chapters to a handful of peripheral characters—the most unsavory group of kids in literature—some of whom I was more interested in than the basic cast (I really disliked that kid). Cheri Blossom, a stripper with appallingly enhanced breasts, and the world’s worst boyfriend, punk loser Ponyboy, might have been my favorites. There were times when I was really into the book, eager for characters to come back and update me, but at the end, there just wasn’t enough cohesion to warrant all the detail (I enjoyed the detail, but I think the book would have worked better as a whole with less of it).

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
The narrator, a shrink, becomes convinced that his wife is a skilled imposter. I think it hadn’t been enough time since I had read the other Capgras Syndrome book, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. I enjoyed The Echo Maker’s third-person perspective more, and the more experimental parts of Galchen’s novel pulled me out of the story a few times.

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris
It took me a while to get into it, but then the structure—quite complex once I started paying attention—pulled me in. The whole book takes place in one night (the dart tournament), and the people at the bar are all interconnected by dint of being members of a small community in Idaho—but also for all sorts of other reasons that I won’t spoil. The pieces all come together in a way that was both sad and satisfying, and the part that I was worried about, all the dart terminology (he didn’t manage to make it interesting to me despite a good try), didn’t distract at all.

The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno
Fun and compelling family story, with each member getting their own chapters in turn. The grandfather was over-represented for my taste (though he did have a great back story), and I missed the effort that was put into the mother and father in the earlier part of the novel. The girls, Thisbe (who was charming and worthy of her own stand-alone book) and Amelia (high-school Communist), were both covered throughout, and as a result, I liked them the best. I was very interested in the mother’s pigeon experiments and was a little disappointed with the conclusions from the study. More giant squid would have been great too (then again, what novel can’t you say that about?). Strong contender for cover of the year. No, really, go look. It’s perfect.

Some Things That Meant the World to Me by Joshua Mohr
Rhonda, a guy, has depersonalization and an internal little Rhonda who leads him on strange and disgusting adventures to their past. Back in the Mission, he drinks too much, hangs out with other people too down and out to have much of a life going, gets hurt while doing the right thing, and decides to drive to Arizona to deal with an old issue. Unfortunately, old issues don’t wait around for you to come back, and things have changed. One of the several indie-published books this year that I wished I could have proofread (I love you, independents, but man oh man are the typos distracting). Completely unrelated to the book, Mohr is a great reader and a hell of a snappy dresser.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk
Fun and a little goofy—I can see why people like Palahniuk. I didn’t see most of the plot turns coming, and despite the supernatural touches, I had a good time reading without ever feeling like my brain was rotting.

Old George Orwell got it backward.
Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.
He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled.
And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Strange book with a compelling unreality running all the way through. Like Lullaby a minute ago, I’m reluctant to say more about the plot for fear of ruining some of the delight of it for someone else. From the first few pages: a settled lawsuit makes the narrator enormously rich after he is struck by something from above and seriously injured (he never clarifies and announces that he won’t on the first page) and decides to use the money in a way that is well worth reading the novel to discover and marvel at. Some of the images will stay with me for a long time. The end was overblown and the pacing went off the rails during the final section, but the book is such a fresh weird take on nostalgia and authenticity that the conclusion wasn’t much of an issue for me.

    loose change, books I couldn’t fit into other categories:

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
That famous opening scene is a stunner. I know that this is the favorite novel of many McEwan fans, but other than the opening, it was a little flat for me. I had a hard time with Clarissa’s skepticism throughout.

And oh God, I loved her. However much I thought about Clarissa, in memory or in anticipation, experiencing her again—the feel and sound of her, the precise quality of love that ran between us, the very animal presence—always brought, along with the familiarity, a jolt of surprise. Perhaps such amnesia is functional—those who could not wrench their hearts and minds from their loved ones were doomed to fail in life’s struggles and left no genetic footprints.

Use Me by Elissa Schappell
The book felt undecided on whether it’s a novel or linked short stories—it goes back and forth in the blurbs and summary. It’s a book of stories that have been pressed into the novel mode (the first chapter in particular was a great stand-alone short story). I’m not sure why this bothers me so much, given that I like short story collections, linked short story collections, and novels. When a book claims to be one of those but then attempts to be another, I’m irked. Once I got over that, I appreciated some punchy writing and a good solid family, but the pushes to extremity (though not terribly extreme) felt a little forced. Schappell wrote a magnificent father character-–I really liked him and missed him when he wasn’t around.

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster
After Josh Mohr’s reading, I followed Jenfu across the street and had a drink with her and her extremely smart and very pretty friends. We talked books; I took notes. “Oh my god, the end of Mr. Vertigo!” Others concurred. I love it when books nail the conclusion, so it went on my list. As promised, the last handful of pages in the book are stunning, couldn’t have been any better. The rest of the book was amusing, but I have serious personal issues with whimsy and anything nearing magical realism, so I’m not the right person to judge this. Contender for best ending of the year, and gets two quotes in appreciation.

That’s how it is with want. As long as you lack something, you yearn for it without cease. If only I could have that one thing, you tell yourself, all my problems would be solved. But once you get it, once the object of your desires is thrust into your hands, it begins to lose its charm. Other wants assert themselves, other desires make themselves felt, and bit by bit you discover that you’re right back where you started.

We’re not as tough as we used to be, and maybe the world’s a better place because of it, I don’t know. But I do know that you can’t get something for nothing, and the bigger the thing you want, the more you’re going to have to pay for it.

Away by Amy Bloom
I wasn’t enthralled (though I was enjoying it) until near the end, but then I was so caught up in it that I had to stop, put the book down, run back, then walk away again to both avoid and prolong the conclusion. Lillian Leyb, a Jewish immigrant in New York in the 1920s, learns that her daughter Sophie, who she thought was killed in the massacre that drove her out of her homeland, is actually alive and living in Siberia with another family. Like a magnet, Lillian heads across the US towards Alaska and then to her daughter, ready to walk the entire way if necessary. Bloom does something nice, something she does throughout the book—she lets us know how the characters we meet up with end up (The Known World did that too, I remember: I really like that trick from an omniscient narrator). Bloom manages a devastatingly romantic and satisfying conclusion. So lovely. Bloom can end a book like nobody’s business. Two quotes.

He wants Lillian to agree that there are some things you want so much you don’t care about their provenance. It doesn’t matter if they’re stolen or paid for or forced out by pity of fear. It only matters that you get that drink, or that release, or that money, or that baby, and when you are standing on the side of need, in the thick of not having what you must, the trouble that may come later, even the trouble you can guarantee, is of no account.

People who tell you the truth right away are people who aren’t afraid of you, and that’s either good news, because they’re too stupid to be afraid, or very bad news, because they know that the only person who needs to be afraid is you.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Ian told me beforehand that much of this has been lifted and plunked right into Mad Men, and it’s hard to see the novel on its own now. I can see that—or more accurately, I couldn’t stop seeing Mad Men while reading. I still enjoyed the book, the precision of the authorial voice, both pushing and pulling me towards and away from the characters. There did seem to be a lot of movement for a paltry little thin plot, and the way Yates would jump from Frank and April to peripheral characters was nice.

But she needed no more advice and no more instruction. She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither of her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman
I enjoyed the antagonism toward the kid here—don’t see that much, and as kids are humans too, some of them are unlikeable. Sometimes I get sloppy on the note-taking. That’s not good for later reference. Sorry, book.

Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch
Another book that felt like a bunch of (quite good) short stories that got mashed together into a novel. I was able to get past that because I felt for the main character all the way through, and appreciated her inability to just force herself to get her shit together. Another contender for best final lines.

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
I picked this up right after Ballard died. It was my first time reading it despite my long-time love for the 1987 movie adaptation (saw it in the theater on a hot day). Wow, Jim is a pain in the ass. He would be on Ritalin now. Even with that, he is incredibly sympathetic, as are many of the characters who fuck him over—an impressive characterization feat. The ending is far more ambiguous and dark than the movie’s.

The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard
Slow-going through first chunk, the retelling of the China story from Empire of the Sun—with some differences, but not many—and the time in the RAF in Canada and settling into marriage and kids. Then Ballard throws an unexpected tragedy right at the head of the protagonist, and it connects. That hooked me, and I was in for the rest. Strange (Ballard has a few obsessions that always feel a little out of place) but satisfying overall.

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
Good long engaging read. Story over decades of two college roommates from different backgrounds—both women make decisions that are tightly coupled to larger social movements, with heavy and believable consequences. A late romantic subplot killed me where I sat.

The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
Although I had some issues on the sentence level (there is something in his style that makes his language thorny and chunky for me, to the point that I sometimes found myself skimming line by line for meaning and not sinking into the voice itself), I really enjoyed the book. Things I liked: the long delay and earned narrative tension between the two primary characters, Aidan the older smart weird brother, the constant songs that are from my same bag of references, and the integration of technology at the level that it really functions at now. I felt grounded in the setting, and I’m sad about all those songs of Cait’s that I will never hear. I would enjoy this as a movie, which isn’t something I usually think about at the end of the book. Two quotes in appreciation of the man-as-muse theme.

Running from the shower to play her the song in his head, the last time he tried, overexcitedly bounding from a weeping shower to play her the song that would fix it all: What was the song? What song could have explained anything at all? That mix-tape urge, the well-plucked quote, the song that would hit the right note and express what he could not; it was a romantic-comedy myth and, like all of them, useless once you’d hurt each other badly enough.

The truth. The truth is, anyone who puts so much of herself and her life into art as you do must naturally fear any failure in that art as a potential threat to your life. And so you protect your art more than you protect your health or the common forms of happiness the rest of us have. And you probably have this in common with every artist you admire, including her.

Next time: the fun books, the books that were nothing like what I expected, and two author binges.

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I’m obviously off somewhere in my head, and the person next to/across from/on the phone with me asks: what’s going on, what are you feeling? Instantly, my language skills degrade until I’m stuck with the primary-colors vocabulary of grade-school books. Happy?—no, sad?—no, angry? no, and then I’m out, all the finer-grained emotional possibilities beyond my ability to reference them.

The analogies stick around: running at my hardest straight into a brick wall without putting my hands up, again. like waking up from an amazing dream and realizing it is barely a detail off of what had happened the night before. And images, what I saw, when I’ve felt that before: that time I woke up at my grandparents’ house in the mountains and there was a thick red piece of yarn leading out of the room, down the stairs, into the pines and back, little birthday gifts tied in at the turns. a moment, grounded again or still grounded, always grounded, staring at the mini-blinds and the ugly August late-afternoon strips of sun across my bedroom.

I reread Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help over the last few days. As part of my reread project for the year, I’m planning on working back to all of her older books. I was surprised by how many of the stories I remembered (it’s been years, and I don’t tend to remember stories). Some of them were so fresh that I wondered if I had read an all-encompassing Moore collection in the interim. Looking at the table of contents to pick a few stellar stories to mention, I have to give up: they are all stellar.

The last time I failed to find words to match my mood was particularly unpleasant. After, I wanted to see a comprehensive list of emotions, preferably in a grid, something in a logical order. I made myself wait for a few days before I went to Wikipedia, which gifted me with ordered lists, and a grid, and a color-coded wheel. Oh. Distress/incompetence/awe. Those are the words that I wanted.

I write the words down on cut strips of index cards, one per slip. The whole time, I’m thinking of helpful projects: pull a word, and make the character in what I’m working on show that; grab a word, and see what images come up; practice saying things like “incompetent and distressed and awed, actually. That’s what I’m feeling.” After I write down each emotion, I put the paper into an envelope. I could draw them back out like fortunes, lotto or bingo numbers, straws. But they aren’t going into a hat (and I have plenty of appropriate hats), they are going into an envelope. I could seal them all up with a quick lick, put the envelope in the outgoing pile with a stamp, walk them up the hill to the post office, and mail them all—rapture and homesickness and desire—back to myself.

Or I might get frustrated during my future project when I pull “zest” from the envelope, and instead of sealing it up, toss them all in the air so a confetti of feelings scatters everywhere (a week later I’d find “scorn” rumpled between the cushions of my couch). I’m considering putting a single blank slip in with the others so that when I draw it back out, at least there’s one I know I’ve got down cold.

(That’s the point at which I thought, holy shit, I’m a Lorrie Moore character lately.)

You live, I read once, you live if you dance to the voice that ails you.

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Another long one given all the quotes, so I’m going to put the great ones at the top, where they belong.

the best:
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer

For the third or fourth time that day a strange, floaty indifference to everything came over me. Since this sensation was utterly unfamiliar and not at all unpleasant I decided that, if experienced again, I would refer to it as contentment.

I first heard about Out of Sheer Rage a few years ago, and, like Stoner, it kept coming up until I surrendered and bought a battered copy. Dyer wants to write his long-considered book about D.H. Lawrence, but more than that, he wants to not write it. Or do anything, really. Gutsy, thoughtful, and hilarious, this book deserves all the acclaim it gets, and more. I laughed out loud, and I cried a little. It’s a baffling shame that more people—especially writers—haven’t read this.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
A wonderful tight memoir about the author’s relationship with her mother, and then the connected relationships with a neighbor, men, and her writing. I don’t want to give too much away because there isn’t much here, in terms of events (in the end, that doesn’t matter). Gornick takes on the idea of work (in this case, writing) as solace and solution to the larger problems she has with other people. Beautifully written, tough and concise, the book also manages to feel complete at the end without any clean endings. Another one that should be widely read by writers.

I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

Night of the Gun by David Carr
Finally, a book that has been read far and wide. Carr goes back and investigates his own history of addiction, finds that things aren’t anywhere near what he remembers and has to deal with the mess he made with many people, including his own daughters. Serious page-turner.

The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott
His best book yet—an investigation of what we think of as the truth, and the concept of confession, with sex and stimulants mixed in. For all the review talk about the kink, the most charged parts of the book for me deal with Elliott’s father, what it means to write when you aren’t “really” writing, the consequences of using your life in your work, and wacko side character Sean Sturgeon. And there’s some hot fucked-up sex.

People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work. It doesn’t matter if I call it fiction: I know as well as they do that’s not an excuse. I don’t bother trying to defend myself. It’s not defensible. It’s just what I do. I spend years crafting a two hundred page story, all the time my life sits next to me like a jar of paint.

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney
When I finished reading this in May, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would end up near the top of my pile. It’s about single-mom Gwartney’s two teenage daughters who run away after she handles a divorce badly and moves the whole family to Eugene, Oregon. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was completely wrapped up in the story, but it took a few of the less successful memoirs I read during the rest of the year to make me realize what she did beautifully here: she hits an exact balance between reflection and blame, neither sparing nor sacrificing herself in the telling. Repeatedly, I would find myself thinking things like, “that was good, but Gwartney dealt with her own culpability more skillfully.” It never quite left me. I can’t imagine how hard it was to pull that off (especially given how completely obnoxious the teens were at times).

straight to the bottom now: memoirs I had problems with:
It pains me that all of these are by women, but that pain is alleviated by the fact that all four were found on the street. I’ve already written about the trouble I had with Reading Lolita in Tehran, and I probably don’t even need to go into why two of the others two didn’t work (given the reviews). In short: Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t a book for me—her unending wide-eyed wonderment, even when saddled with grief, got old very quickly. The India third is perhaps the most interesting due to the other characters there. Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was terrible. Some of it rests with the translation (a mess), some of it with the French (such seriousness, such pretentious musing), and the rest of it with Millet herself, who managed to turn a spectacularly wild sexual history into a boring and gross slog. That in itself is an accomplishment of sorts. Caroline Kraus’s Borderlines had a substantial narrative push going for it (I wanted to find out what happened all the way through), but there were some fundamental problems with the way Kraus wrote about her role. She didn’t spend enough time on the problems she had going on that would cause her to get that involved with the borderline roommate. I think she was still a little too caught up in the drama of Jane to be writing the book—there wasn’t enough distance from or reflection about many of the events, which is doom for a memoir.

a stack of delightful (though not always happy) memoirs:
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
This is how a solid memoir should work. Occasionally simplistic or vague, but compelling all the way through, even when she was in the thick of addiction/recovery clichés. She had an appealing voice, and I immediately checked out her book about her relationship with her dog when I finished. Let me save you the pain, in case you didn’t know: Knapp died (very young) in 2005—I only discovered this when I went to look up reviews and was shocked and saddened.

Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp
A memoir about Knapp’s relationship with her dog, Lucille. Sweet and sad because I know that Knapp did not, in fact, outlive Lucille as she feared. Light on the research—though it was there, along with sources cited at the end—nothing that isn’t already known by a dog-geek reader. Still, a touching read, and I got an excellent feel for both the dog and author and their particular appealing dysfunctions.

The Dogs Who Came to Stay by George Pitcher
Only two dog books this year? That seems wrong. A sweet, slim memoir about two academic bachelors at Princeton who adopt a stray dog, Lupa, and one of her pups, Remus, and then include the dogs deeply into their lives. No, really deeply—at one point, they take them to France by ship. Pitcher has a novel voice for the dog-memoir genre. I will admit that I wondered about the relationship between the men for most of the book. (Anyone know?)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Must I pretend that this is fiction? My fiction list is way longer, so it’s going here. So much better than I thought it would be (I have a patchy history with Hemingway), and it’s also made me both more interested in the novels I hadn’t read and more appreciative of his prose.

All things truly wicked start from an innocence. So you live day by day and enjoy what you have and do not worry. You lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is more dangerous, but you live day to day as in a war.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke
It feels like cheating to count this as a whole book—it’s nowhere near a hundred pages. Handke forces himself to write after his mother’s suicide: the writing is assured but there is a downpour of loss over every sentence.

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
More properly a collection of essays, but it didn’t feel right in the plain nonfiction entry. Franzen-good, which means great. Chewy, personal, relevant, balanced essays. (Let me mention here that I’m nervous about the new novel—the excerpt in The New Yorker a while back didn’t work for me.)

Do I sound nostalgic? I am not. I don’t hunger to return to those days, because I clearly remember wishing to be nowhere in the world but standing next to Tom on the muffler- and tailpipe-strewn shoulder as, with fingers stiff from the Chicago winter, he wire the Ghia’s hood back into place. I knew I was happy then, and so I can look back on those years and not miss them. I was present when they happened, and that’s enough.

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs
A rollicking good pop read. Jacobs decides to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but sets that quest alongside his domestic dramas. I loved the wife (and family), their attempt to get pregnant, his relationship with his brilliant driven father, and his appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. A bushel of fun small facts (all navel oranges are essentially from one tree) and the larger patterns in the world of knowledge. Won’t change your life, but good god it’s nice to read something fun sometimes.

books that made me cringe (important: not because they were bad):
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
This is a beautifully written and incredibly interesting memoir. It is also possibly the most grim thing I read this year. Even telling other people about it (and I did, a lot) made me cry a few times. Dark, dark stuff, and highly recommended, if you can handle it. I’m looking forward to Flynn’s upcoming book.

I Love You More Than You Know by Jonathan Ames
Ames has the distinction of being the author I read in the most genres this year (novel, graphic novel, this collection). In each of the genres, I have to slow myself down—he’s very easy to read at a breakneck pace. These are memoir-y essays, interspersed with entries from the future dictionary project, that I metered out over a couple of days. He is a disgusting man much of the time, and it’s hard to tell how much of his writing about his ass problems and nose picking and various perversions (which aren’t that bad, really) is on the side of gross-out boy bragging and how much is shameful public self-flagellation. Either way, they are fun to read. He sounds like he’s getting into the worst trouble ever, essay by essay, but in retrospect, he’s only in mild straits most of the time. Terrifying little author photo inset.

A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk
Ack, babies. Except the book is about the problems inherent in being a new mother who is not at all accustomed to or prepared for the work (physical, emotional, and intellectual) demanded by an infant. I can see why there was such a fuss over this book: Cusk talks about the hard, isolating, surprising labor and loss of self that comes from having a baby without doing the usual tempering of “but I love her and she is the best and it’s really the best thing ever even if it’s hard, now excuse me while I cry.” Cusk could write about golf and I’d likely pick it up—her sentences are consistently lovely. It still made me all itchy and claustrophobic (I can barely take care of myself and a dog).

The Ramen King and I by Andy Raskin
Poor Andy is a compulsive cheaterwhore, fucking up all of his relationships by cheating, sometimes in multiple directions at the same time, with the help of Craigslist and sushi dinners. He’s also a Japan-o-phile, fluent in the language, consumed by the food and culture. He decides to clean up his act, goes to an unnamed Sex or Love Addicts meeting, and finds a sponsor who tells him to write to his higher power. On a whim, he goes with the creator of instant ramen and cup o’noodles (totally not looking up the correct spelling/caps on those for fear of falling into the internet). He works through his issues, tries to meet Ando, has dining adventures in SF and Japan. Fun, fast, and sweet, though it’s painful watching him make big mistakes. Made me want to eat sushi. A lot of sushi.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It was interesting reading this so long after it came out, after all the backlash and Eggers’ later books (I’ve read three, I think). I didn’t find the beginning bits as indulgent as I expected to, and I liked Eggers voice and the way he dealt with character and setting. By the end, there was too much book. There was great material and writing in here, but it just kept coming and coming. The other books I’ve read didn’t suffer from that overkill, and I hope he’s remembered more for the things he pulled off than the experiments that didn’t quite work.

I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on the walls I can show them to you without diminishing them. I can afford to give you everything. We gasp at the wretches on afternoon shows who reveal their hideous secrets in front of millions of similarly wretched viewers, and yet . . . what have we taken from them, what have they given us? Nothing. We know that Janine had sex with her daughter’s boyfriend, but . . . then what? We will die and we will have protected . . . what? Protected from all the world that, what, we do this or that, that our arms have made these movements and our mouths these sounds? Please.

That seems like an appropriate place to end the memoir parade.

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in my possession for not more than a quarter:
War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I remember a lot of internet noise about this little book about a year ago, so when it showed up on a discount rack, I picked it up. The first third, about Resistance and gluing one’s ass to one’s seat, was a nice familiar bromide. The other two thirds veered too hard into woo-woo angels and higher powers territory for me, but I’ll admit that I still think about the beginning bits when I find myself doing everything in the world other than sitting down to work. The takeaway, after nine months, however, is that it’s possible to write a literary advice book while sounding absolutely enraged. Even while Pressfield is writing about his successes and the things that inspire him, he sounds furious. He’s pissed off, and that actually made this a fun read, even if the advice didn’t really work for me.

The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson
Disjointed but amusing snapshots of different Silicon Valley people in 2000 or so. Apparently a collection of his essays from Wired—there wasn’t a lot of effort to blend the stories or conclusions, but it was a fun read nonetheless, mostly due to the incredible rate of change that has taken place. It’s all feast in this book, the blowing of the big bubble, and I can’t help but wonder what happened to some of those guys when their stock options imploded and the jobs at the profit-less start-ups disappeared. Unfortunately, I had to give this book back to the street because the spine color aggravated me.

Everyone is attempting to make things that have not existed before. And though we could argue til dawn about the utility or significance of what they’re creating, I believe that to create and risk failing is the essence of feeling alive—that in the moment of creation they shake off their anonymity and feel relevant to the sweep of the world.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Advanced Reader Copy found wandering alone on the corner. While there is a lot of interesting information in this book, the writing is so effortful that I didn’t take to it like I would something by oh-say Gladwell (start your hate engine now because he’ll be making another appearance today). Also, for all the talk of what is wrong, there are about five pages of what works. The proportion is way off and not enough to bring me down gently from feeling like everything I think is a lie. Which it may be, but I prefer to hear that sort of news from fiction. The interesting: humans are terrible about predicting the future in that we don’t include things that will be there and add current things that will not be. Not that that matters, since we are terrible at guessing not only what will make us happy, but how happy even inconsequential events will make us (happiness indicators are highest for people who have suffered great losses). Due to our psychological immune systems, we bounce back from even horrific things (the more horrific the better, actually), so our predictions of how bad we will feel are messed up as well. The solution: ask other people who have done the thing you are contemplating since other people’s experiences tend to correlate, even if you are a unique butterfly. But I really am a unique butterfly. Like you, and everyone else.

Oh god, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey
I’m blaming this one on Beth Lisick. I’ve passed this book on the street more times than I can remember (not a good sign), but Lisick mentioned it in Helping Me Help Myself and also maybe at a dinner thing I attended. In a way, it’s a classic American book. So when I saw it in a box in June, I decided it was time. It ended up being a lot of time. This could have been a quarter as long and packed in all the same information—Covey is almost compulsively wordy. Most of it was obvious and written in a dated and repetitive way that made me have to force myself not to skim through. At a certain point I found myself playing the fortune cookie game to get through it. So you don’t have to read it, here they are, the habits of highly effective white men with office jobs:

1. Be proactive
2. Begin with the end in mind
3. Put first things first
4. Think win/win
5. Seek first to understand, then be understood
6. Synergize
7. Sharpen the saw

Now read that again, adding “in bed” to the end of each one. (The last one is a little specific, granted, but I can make it work.) I feel more effective already.

recommended to me:
This Year I Will . . . M. J. Ryan
Hit it here, and what do you know, my resolutions are still working out better than they used to. I remain a judgmental dick.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Is it strange to want a book to be drier? A lot of good in here, things I hadn’t consciously considered, ways to work around common problems, but there were so many examples and interest-catching anecdotes that it diluted what I was really after: hard, cold, efficient information on how to go about chewing through a major revision, particularly of a bad and probably hopeless novel. Even with that, I’m glad I own this and will look back to it in the future.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Half and half—half of it was gritty, inspirational, and illuminating; the other half was tangential at best and frequently repetitive. It’s Gladwell, though, so it’s readable and fast enough that the flaws aren’t enough to put me off of the strengths. Loved the article about precocity and genius in The New Yorker much more. I understand that this makes me horribly gauche and it’s okay if you don’t want to be seen with me in public anymore.

Lance Armstrong’s War by Daniel Coyle
Fascinating, enthralling, zippy portrait of LA’s 2004 Tour de France. It was the stuff other than LA (who is WICKED and ROTTEN and don’t get me started) that pulled me in—little tidbits about Jens!-I-love-him-Voigt (raised in East Germany, 18 when the Wall fell), Hincapie (“killer instinct of a timid woodland creature”), Floyd (amiable weirdo), and all sorts of general rider trivia (they try to avoid walking if possible). Excellent end notes too—enough to pull someone through the Tour without my usual explanation using small plastic animals. Reads like a mystery, with LA both the central character and the villain. Recommended by Mark, my friend and enabler in TdF obsession.

“First week you feel good. The second week you lose strength. Third week, fucked.” Per Pederson

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein
It’s unfair of me to say that I maybe would have gotten more out of this with a little bit less Buddhism considering that the subtitle is “A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness.” I occasionally felt battered by the religion and that made it hard for me to digest the moments of uncomfortable relevance. For I am a little crazy. Recommended by my therapist (see previous sentence).

Intimacy puts us in touch with fragility, he realized, and the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy. … Reveling in intimacy means simultaneously appreciating its fleetingness. This is one of the reasons why we shy away from intimacy—it tends to put us in touch with our own vulnerability.

Ignore Everybody (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity) by Hugh MacLeod
The contradictions were so stark in this little artistic self-help book/cartoon collection that I had a very hard time getting what I needed out of it (and read it twice because it felt worth it and is incredibly short). The good: the Mt. Everest chapter (do you feel the need to climb it, or at least try? and if so, you must in order to feel good about your life). Hang on to your paying day job. “If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.” The bad: seriously, contradictions every other page. If I take in something on one page and then am mocked for it a page later, I do not feel good about a book. That’s another thing—for all the talk about being positive, there’s a ton of negativity.

Frankly, I think you’re better off doing something on the assumption that you will not be rewarded for it, that it will not receive the recognition it deserves, that it will not be worth the time and effort invested in it.
The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it’s an added bonus.
The second, more subtle and profound advantage is that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from the creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer:
Do you make this damn thing exist or not?
And once you can answer that truthfully for yourself, the rest is easy.

Playing and Reality by D.W. Winnicott
Some stunning ideas that hit me in the chest about play, fantasy/dream/play, and the role of human connection and collaboration. It’s no secret that I’m on a little Winnicott thing. What’s strange is that I had never heard of him before maybe a year and a half ago, but now I notice his name constantly in other books and in larger culture. Maybe he’s been there all along. If I had magical powers, I’d make T.C. Boyle write me a novel of Winnicott’s life.

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.

the big deals:
What It Is by Lynda Barry
First time through: graphic novel about writing—the first third was a struggle, particularly the parts that weren’t narrative about her early life. The pastiche and collage was beyond my ability to appreciate it. But then I did a couple of the later exercises, and one of them, about childhood memories of cars, fucked me right up. Something is working there on a level I don’t usually have access to.
Second time through: what exactly was I struggling with? Visual overload? It didn’t happen when I went back through. Still, every time I try to do the (seemingly simple and emotionally mild) exercises, I slide into anxiety attacks. Yes, see above about the crazy, but she’s also found a way in those exercises to work around the memory structures that keep me from the sensitive but loamy material I don’t even know I’m carrying around.

Playing is about not knowing. Is playing bringing something alive? It was brought alive somehow, not ‘to life’ but alive. Interaction and reciprocity require at least two parties. You play with something and something plays with you. Even if it’s only a passive thing.

(She’s all over Winnicott too.)

Juggling for the Complete Klutz by John Cassidy and B.C. Rimbeaux
Yup. I didn’t technically learn from this barely-a-book pamphlet (I learned from the “angry bowling pin,” who I later met at the Berkeley Juggling Festival and bought balls from), but the instructions are sound. I’m still juggling every day. Someday I’ll figure out how to explain why this changed me. In short, and lopping off a number of other benefits, I finally found a way to access a meditative state that works for me.

Well, that was a weird place to end. In writing these up, I realize how harsh I am on this genre (non-memoir nonfiction)—the percentage of books I had complaints about is much higher than it is elsewhere. Either I’m expecting perfection each trip, or (more likely) it’s the genre I’ve never tried to do myself, so I don’t see and appreciate the work even when I don’t love the final product. Next time, a much bigger lovefest: memoir.

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