Category Archives: books

Pandemic blog 45: reading

Here’s the list of books I read in 2020:

  • 26 Dec 2020: Surrender on Demand, by Varian Fry.
  • 15 Dec 2020: He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope.
  • 20 Nov 2020: The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Nov 2020: The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie.
  • 2 Nov 2020:  And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Oct 2020:  The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax, by Nosson Slifkin.
  • 10 Oct 2020:  selections from Portrait of Delmore (journals of Delmore Schwartz, 1939-1959)
  • 1 Oct 2020:  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.
  • 25 Sep 2020:  The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre.
  • 17 Sep 2020:  4:50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie.
  • 10 Sep 2020:  The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman.
  • 8 Sep 2020:  The Lying Lives of Adults, by Elena Ferrante.
  • 2 Sep 2020:  I Left My Homework in the Hamptons, by Blythe Grossberg.
  • 25 Aug 2020: The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 17 Aug 2020:  Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.
  • 16 Jul 2020:  A Working Girl Can’t Win, by Deborah Garrison.
  • 4 Jul 2020: Bullies, by George W.S. Trow.
  • 30 Jun 2020:  Diary of a Flying Man, by Randy Cohen.
  • 20 Jun 2020: The Game-Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick.
  • 11 May 2020: Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.
  • 25 Apr 2020:  The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, by Stanley Keisel.
  • 15 Apr 2020:  Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee.
  • 10 Apr 2020:  old 1980s issues of Elementals and Squadron Supreme
  • 3 Apr 2020: Weather, by Jenny Offill.
  • 20 Mar 2020: Powers of X / House of X #1-6, Jonathan Hickman.
  • 10 Feb 2020: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (Roxana Robinson, ed.)
  • 8 Feb 2020: Jews and Judaism in New York, Moses Weinberger (Jonathan Sarna, trans.)
  • 4 Jan 2020: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

27 books. I think I thought I’d read a lot, being home all the time, but in fact I think I get a lot of my reading done on planes. At home there’s really not a time I shouldn’t be dadding or working. And also, I was writing a book, and I find it hard to write and read at the same time. (And books I read for writing research I don’t put on the list; I don’t usually read all of them, for one thing, and it doesn’t feel like the same activity as reading reading, if you know what I mean.

Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton bio was the first book I bought in 2020; I went to the Joint Math Meetings in Denver and went to the Tattered Cover, probably the last really famous American megabookstore I’ve never been to. It was a used paperback and it seemed to me the odds I’d actually read it were low. I bought it aspirationally. But then I read those New York stories (bought at a really appealing new bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. in Philadelphia, and now that I think of it that was definitely over winter break so that might have been the first book I bought in 2020, unless it was the last one I bought in 2019.) Anyway: reader, I read it. When was I going to read 800 pages of Edith Wharton’s life except now? And I liked it; I liked it a lot. I liked the way it just dove into every detail with a fearless exhaustiveness; you’re here, I’m here, in an 800 page biography, who’s gonna set down in print everything it’s possible to know about Wharton’s pre-fame ideas about garden architecture if not me, here and now? I think it actually got into my fingers as I wrote Shape, sending me down some historical research byways that didn’t actually make it into the book. But that’s good! Because there’s some weird historical stuff that maybe didn’t have to be in Shape but which is great and I credit Hermione Lee.

I also credit her with sending me to Journal of a Disappointed Man, which Wharton read and liked later in her life. A strange, bitter, very well-rendered diary chronicling a short life in science in the beginning of the 20th century in England. It’s surprising how few journals I read considering how much I like them. (From a Darkened Room was the first book like this I ever read and it shook me so much I never opened it again.) It’s out of copyright and freely available at Internet Archive, which is how I read it.

One thing I used my home time to do was unpack and shelve some boxes of books that had been sealed up since I moved to Wisconsin in 2005. I suppose I am supposed to say “I realized I could have discarded this stuff long ago and lived lighter,” but no, it was a pleasure to be reunited with these old friends. Bullies and Diary of a Flying Man are both specimens of a very specific genre of fiction which maybe doesn’t have a name; it has to do with the 1970s and the idea of producing things that could be read as light comic stories or avant-garde provocations. It has something to do with Donald Barthelme I guess. It definitely is a strain that helped form me as a writer. There’s a very specific nostalgia that comes from reading what you used to want to imitate. (It was similar to what I felt watching After Hours earlier this month; I never wanted to make movies but I wanted to write stories that felt like that movie, that’s for sure.)

Two childhood favorites, Interstellar Pig and Stanley Keisel’s unjustifiably forgotten The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, were also in the boxes and were as good as I remembered. The Keisel is so strange, so angry about the way school works, so casual about plot in its struggle to find feeling. People would like it now, I think. It is surely a good time for a novel whose antagonist is named “Mr. Foreclosure” and who is actually an — well, just read it, if you can find it.

The Lying Lives of Adults was the best new novel I read, and maybe the year’s Ferrante book always will be. A funny thing about reading is that I still have Zadie Smith books and Peter Carey books in the house I haven’t read, and they are all surely better than the next book I’m going to read, whatever it is, and if I had extra Ferrante books around it would be the same. But I don’t read by greedy algorithm.

I read a lot of Agatha Christie as the election approached because I needed to be reading things where I knew the crooks would be exposed and marched off at the end. Reading four in a month was too much, you start to see how they work. But they were good. I was planning to get into Le Carre, too, but he was a little too man-cold for me. Then he died and I felt weird reading and only sort of liking Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I stopped.

Books I didn’t read. I thought this might be the year I read Maryland: A Middle Temperament, a very long history, but no. I didn’t actually read any history at all unless you count Varian Fry’s very good memoir about smuggling politically disfavored people out of the sort-of-occupied South of France in 1940 and 1941. I started a re-read of The House of Mirth but I’d had enough Wharton at that point. I didn’t read Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks. I will! But her wonderful book party, in February, was the last party I went to, and every time I look at the book I think about wanting to go to a party again, and that gets me out of the mood. Next year.

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Pandemic blog 32: writing

Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”

which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.

(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?

you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)

Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.

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Edith Wharton shipped Esther/Haman

That theory, now, that Odysseus never really forgot Circe; and that Esther was in love with Haman, and decoyed him to the banquet with Ahasuerus just for the sake of once having him near her and hearing him speak; and that Dante, perhaps, if he could have been brought to book, would have had to confess to caring a good deal more for the pietosa donna of the window than for a long-dead Beatrice — well, you know, it tallies wonderfully with the inconsequences and surprises that one is always discovering under the superficial fitnesses of life.

(Edith Wharton, “That Good May Come,” 1894.)

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In which I almost waste four dollars at Amazon

Instructive anecdote. I needed a somewhat expensive book and the UW library didn’t have it. So I decided to buy it. Had the Amazon order queued up and ready to go, $45 with free shipping, then had a pang of guilt about the destruction of the publishing industry and decided it was worth paying a little extra to order it directly from the publisher (Routledge.)

From the publisher it was $41, with free shipping.

I think it really did used to be true that the Amazon price was basically certain to be the best price. Not anymore. Shop around!

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2018: The year of reading books that are older than me

I’ve started a program of picking a constraint every year and striving to make half the books I read satisfy that constraint.  This year it was to read books that came out before my own copyright date, 1971.  Here’s the 2018 reading list, with links on books I blogged about:

  • 20 Dec 2018: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
  • 3 Dec 2018:  Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays, trans.) (161-180)
  • 24 Nov 2018:  The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 15 Nov 2018:  The Fiancée, and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (Ronald Wilks, trans.) (1904)
  • 19 Oct 2018:  Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
  • 7 Oct 2018:  Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-53)
  • 6 Oct 2018:  Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier.
  • 15 Sep 2018:  Mind and Matter, by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas.
  • 6 Sep 2018:  A Spy In Time, by Imraan Coovadia.
  • 1 Sep 2018:  Cat Country (貓城記), by Lao She (William Lyell, trans.) (1932)
  • 10 Aug 2018:  Maigret and the Headless Corpse, by Georges Simenon (Howard Curtis, trans.) (1955)
  • 31 Jul 2018:  Before The Golden Age:  A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (Isaac Asimov, ed.)
  • 26 Jun 2018:  Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.
  • 20 May 2018: “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,” by Wang Ming (1956)
  • 10 May 2018:  The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (1958)
  • 1 Apr 2018:  Indoctrinaire, by Christopher Priest (1970)
  • 28 Mar 2018:  Riots (Problems of American Society series), Anita Monte and Gerald Leinwand, eds. (1970)
  • 14 Mar 2018:  The Surprising Place, by Malinda McCollum.
  • 9 Mar 2018:  99 Variations on a Proof, by Philip Ording.
  • 18 Feb 2018:  How To Leave, by Erin Clune.
  • 10 Feb 2018:  The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.
  • 27 Jan 2018:  Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)
  • 20 Jan 2018:  The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard (1962)
  • 19 Jan 2018: Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 (Peter Maresca, ed.)
  • 10 Jan 2018:  The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  • 4 Jan 2018:  Why Men Fail, Morris Fishbein and William White, eds. (1928) (second post)

Society is Nix and Before the Golden Age are slight cheats: both books came out after 1971, but they anthologize material written well before, so I decided they counted.

One of my goals in doing these theme years is the idea that a whole year spent in a part of the bibliosphere I mostly skip will broaden my reading habits permanently.  Maybe?  I feel like this list has more translated works than I used to typically read in a year, and maybe I can credit the 2016 theme.  But only 5 of these 25 books are by women, so my 2015 theme is maybe not doing its work.

Other notes:

Best of the year:  A lot of the theme books were good, but this year, for the first time, none of the theme books really excited me enough to enter my idiocanon.  I should have reread some Edith Wharton or something.

What I learned from the project:  Based on two examples, 19th century novels in English care a lot about the difference between how men should be and how women should be (I think contemporary English-language novels are still like this) and the plot is often driven by sums of money and questions about how they will be distributed (I feel like contemporary English-language novels are seldom like this and I wonder why not?)

Based on Wieland I think the prose style of 18th century English is just inevitably always going to be swampy going for me and I probably won’t push myself harder to read more.   It was pretty metal, though.  Wieland and Bleak House have spontaneous combustion in common, something you also don’t see much of in contemporary English-language novels.

The Dud Avocado was truly funny and reminded me that people actually wrote and published books in the 1950s that were quite sexually frank.  I thank whatever librarian at Sequoyah knew the book and put it out on the front table so browsers like me would see it.

Biggest disappointment:  The Drowned World is a super-famous and canonical SF novel and I just thought it was bad.  A few well-done set pieces but doesn’t really function as a novel or as science fiction.  If you were going to read Dangerous Visions-era SF with a similar title I would recommend Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World instead; he maintains the level of high mind-changing weirdness that Ballard only occasionally touches.

Outside the theme:  Four contemporary books I loved.  Malinda McCollum’s The Surprising Place is an anthology I’ve been awaiting for years.  The old stories are as great as I remembered.  The new stories even greater.  Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity is a concept novel (interlocking narratives ranging from the 16th century to the 25th) which shouldn’t work at all but kind of mostly does.  Many beautiful lines.  Sort of Cloud Atlas meets (T. Coraghessan Boyle’s) World’s End if anybody but me cares about those two books.  Erin Clune’s How To Leave is a very very funny take on living in Wisconsin and only gradually coming to grasp that you don’t live in New York.  Reader, I blurbed it!  I first met Elisa Gabbert as a commenter on this blog.  She  is great on Twitter.  So it’s not surprising she is great at pocket essays.  But it is surprising, happily surprising, that her small-press book The Word Pretty got noticed and raved about by the New York Times.  Sometimes the system works!

Old stuff I meant to read and didn’t get to:  Rereading The House of Mirth.  Reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End which I have often started but never finished.  Ditto The Man Without Qualities.  I was going to read more classical stuff but never even got to the point of figuring out what to plan to read and not get to.  Just in general I think I spent too much time in the kiddie pool of the pre-1971 20th century, a period I’ve already spent a lot of time reading.  After all, when I was a kid, there wasn’t much else.

The great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way — and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world?

(William Makepeace Thackeray, from Vanity Fair)

 

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Did I like Bleak House?

It’s like asking if I like New York.  It’s big!  A lot of different things are in it.  Some things are monumental and wonderful, some things have an offhand arresting beauty, some things smell bad.

Minor thoughts after break — this book just came out 165 years ago and I want to spare you spoilers.

Continue reading

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Before the Golden Age, and memories of memories

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Before the Golden Age, a thousand-page anthology Isaac Asimov edited of his favorite stories from the pulp era of science fiction, the early 1930s, when Asimov was a teenager.  I was reading those stories at about the same age Asimov was when he read them.  Asimov put this anthology together in 1974, and remarks in his afterwords on his surprise at how well he remembered these stories.  I, reading them in my own adulthood, am surprised by the same thing.  The armored fighting suits with all the different-colored rays!  1930s science fiction was really into “rays.”

On the other hand, reading these stories again now, and thinking about whether I’d want to lend this book to CJ, I’m stopped short by, well, how super-racist a lot of these stories are?  I hadn’t remembered this at all.  Like, you write a story (“Awlo of Ulm”) about a guy who makes himself smaller than an atom and discovers an entirely new subnuclear universe, and the wildest thing you can imagine finding there is… that the black-skinned subnuclear people are cannibalistic savages, and the yellow-skinned, slant-eyed ones are hyperrational, technically advanced, and cruel, and the white-skinned ones are sort of feudal and hapless but really standup guys when you get to know them?

Anyway, then I read the story, and then I read Asimov’s 1974 afterwords, when he writes about how he was stopped short, reading the stories again then, by how super-racist a lot of the stories were, and that he hadn’t remembered that at all.

So not only did I forget the stories had a lot of racism, I also forgot about Asimov forgetting about the stories having a lot of racism!

1930s SF was really worried about (but also, I think, kind of attracted to) the idea that humans, by relying on machines for aid, would become less and less physically capable, transforming first into big-headed weaklings and finally into animate brains, maybe with tiny eyes or beaks or tentacles attached.  This image comes up in at least three of the stories I’ve read so far (but is most vividly portrayed in “The Man Who Evolved.”)

Of course, you can ask:  was this actually a dominant concern of 1930s SF, or was it a dominant concern of nerdy teen Isaac Asimov?  What I know about the pulps is what I know from this anthology, so my memory of it is my memory of his memory of it.

When I was a kid, by the way, I sent Isaac Asimov a fan letter.  I was really into his collections of popular science essays, which I read again and again.  I told him “I’ll bet I’m your only seven-year-old fan.”  He sent back a postcard that said “I’ll bet you are not my only seven-year-old fan.”  Damn, Asimov, you burned me good.

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A Supposedly Fun Thing (a book review)

I wrote a review of David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in 1997 for the late great Boston Phoenix, whose archives don’t seem to be online anymore.  (SOB)

But I have a pdf copy, so here it is, for my own reference, and yours if for some reason you need it!

I should have anticipated this and downloaded all my Phoenix stuff. The first pieces I ever reported were there, a short one about a Michael Moore rally and a long one about the MLA. They’re gone. But wait! I was able to recover the MLA piece from the WayBack Machine.  Thanks, WayBack Machine!  I’ll post that later.

 

 

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Ursula K. LeGuin is dead

She was one of the people who taught me what good writing was.  I read mostly SF as a kid.  Nothing against SF.  But a lot of it is … terrible.  We know this.  When I read LeGuin I suddenly saw what English could do when a writer actually cared about the words on the page, where they sat, how they sounded.  I couldn’t believe it.  Her sentences were more exciting than most people’s space battles.

The famous books are famous justly.  The Dispossessed.  The Left Hand of Darkness.  A Wizard of Earthsea.  (And when you’re talking about words on the page, think about how much more right that title is with “A” instead of “The.”)  Earthsea I just read again last year.  I felt, at once, glad I’d gotten to read it as a kid, but equally glad I’d come back to it as an adult so I could understand it in full.  Maybe 20 years from now I’ll read it again and say, “I’m sure glad I read it again — now I finally get it.”

(Here’s David Carlton on Earthsea.)

But the one I read down to shreds was her anthology The Compass Rose.  Especially “The New Atlantis.”  And hey look, the full text is online!

When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be a writer but probably really I just wanted to be the writer of this story.  I wrote a dozen crappy versions of it, each of which I thought of as original.  Looking at it now, I can hardly find a paragraph I didn’t rip off at some point.  I mean, just:

There was an electrified fence all around the forest to keep out unauthorized persons. The forest ranger talked about mountain jays, “bold little robbers,” he said, “who will come and snatch the sandwich from your very hand,” but I didn’t see any. Perhaps because that was the weekly Watch Those Surplus Calories! Day for all the women, and so we didn’t have any sandwiches. If I’d seen a mountain jay, I might have snatched the sandwich from his very hand, who knows.

It’s a small thing, I know, but this is how I learned an effect I don’t even have a name for.  Repeating a phrase but the phrase is delivered in two different voices.  It can be comic or it can be spooky, or, as here, it can be both.  I ripped it off from Ursula LeGuin as I ripped off so much else.  RIP.

 

 

 

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