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Herein, we share the resin of our reading. Why?Maybe because too many book reviews seem to oversummarize plot and underprovide formal and thematic sensations experienced while reading? Thus, short, impressionistic reviews ("reviews" isn't really the right word -- more like "the sense/thought resonance of our reading") are now appearing in this space, with the latest reviews toward the top of this page, or sometimes linked to their own page. We promise to evangelicize more than eviscerate, and always tell the truth. (More recent impression-type things can be found in the archive. BTW, sometimes we talk of "stars" on a 1-to-5 scale, which is clearly because these reviews first appear in somewhat different -- or exact same -- form on Goodreads.) Maybe one day we'll put each of these on its own page with lots of links?
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira
Said, a bit too loud, "Ha! Wow!" immediately after finishing its perfect ending. Not to hype it too much but maybe a new favorite short novel? It's a little like the Bartlebooth sections in Perec's Life: A User's Manual crossed with "Fitzcarraldo"? Imagine if Herzog exhumed Kinski for one last old-timey (early 1800s) South American romp . . . Seriously swell lit. Very little dialogue (no quotes; no conventional literary fiction dramatization; no character-revealing convos etc; no sections rendered as freakin' .PPT files). Mostly exposition. Objectively fantastic sentences (examples to come), the product of clear perception, perfect phrasing, insightful and often odd, but never feels "languagey." Similes are rare and wielded with extreme care, like a knife to the udders of night. If he'd filled out the summarized scenes with traditional dramatization this would have maybe felt like The Radetzky March in spirit. As is, it's 87 pages of awesome fictional biography, and, as such, feels like a novel due to density and evocation of a world. Shades of Sebald, Bolano (his most vivid bits), but more accessible -- easier reading, more focused, at times way more gripping (vividly described, very active things happen!)? Anyway, Señor Aira has earned another fan. Might try to read some of his stuff in Spanish once I exhaust what's available in English (apparently only 4 of ~60 novella-length books have been translated)? The translation, by the way, reads ridiculously well. 

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal
Good-natured, a little randy, very much free-associative, a waltz of clauses strung together, periodless, though the idea that it's one sentence is a farce, unless "one sentence" is defined as tons of natural end-of-thought stopping/transition spots (deep breaths) marked by commas instead of periods, which, as in Saramago's stuff, particularly Blindness, effectively keeps eyes on pages, propels readers ahead, this sense of ceaselessly continuing created by a comma instead of a full stop, you see, I enjoyed this as much as the other Hrabal I've read -- Too Loud a Solitude -- expressing this enjoyment audibly with a few snorts and quiet little cackle-type noises, nothing too boisterous, while walking and reading this one, especially not while wearing khakis, I wouldn't have wanted to wet myself, the stain would be obvious, but if a number one while walking and reading and wearing khakis was made unavoidable thanks to mirth, I would carry on heroically, walking and reading with this stain upon the sweet spot where my legs meet, smiling to young ladies all the while, confident, albeit surely semi-deranged in a harmless way, which is how this book proceeds, that is, with a good-natured narrator who likes the ladies, who the ladies like in return, who conceives of himself heroically despite nothing occurring that's too dramatic, who levens his levity with a storytelling instinct honed over a lifetime that knows to slip in brutalities, especially shamed folks hanging themselves with towels, mothers hacking away at their hanged daughters, the sort of things that people apparently liked to hear before they outsourced storytelling to radio and TV and Tarantino, this book is the sort of thing that reminds me a little of my grandpa once hydrocephalic dementia kicked in, the innocent confabulatory flow, fact and fiction intermixed, every instance of a lifetime in play, with emphasis added to stress enjoyment despite imminent end, the final full stop Hrabal's "sentence"-length novella purposefully fails to include, perhaps as a bit of palavering rebellion against the contrivance of ends in general, or the idea that death is an end at all

The Legend of the Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth
A feelgood alcoholic wish-fulfillment happy-ending hybrid of chilled-out Gogol and irresponsible Norman Rockwell. Makes you wanna down a few Pernod and visit cafes where ladies for hire hang out. A short story more than a novella. The last thing Roth wrote. Not really on the same level as his masterpiece, The Radetzky March, but a nice lil' literary sumptin' sump. 

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans 
Difficult to do this one justice. Took forever to read its 200+ dense pages. Well worth it, especially for the plush, precise, unexpected turns of the language, multi-phrase pile-ups on the Trans-European Translation Expressway. Mostly a catalogue of art, books, and music the main dude likes. The main dude, also, is extraneurotic, extraordinarily rich, aestheticized to the extreme, and willfully isolated from the world. He has a garden of semi-pornographically described carnivorous plants. He paints his pet tortoise gold and studs its shell with precious stones. Inspired by Dickens, he sets off for London to experience its rainy misty derelict nights but instead gets wasted on lagers and porters at an English restaurant in Paris, traveling to London in his imagination, returning home fully exhausted from his "journey." The tortoise bit and the imaginary travel bit were the most vivid bits here, the pages most closely seeming like scenes. The rest, really, was essayistic, sort of like the chapters in American Psycho about Huey Lewis, Whitney Houston, Genesis, etc, but this takes place in the 19th Century so it's all about Zola, Baudelaire, Poe, lots of Catholic art and really too many artists and artworks to even begin to list, thereby adding to the list of things I've never heard of but wouldn't mind hunting down, like Ernest Hello or Barbey d'Aurevilly? Read this because someone included Huysmans on a list of frustrated idealists that included Bernhard. Occasionally a few general over-the-top swipes at humanity in this one, but mostly it's an appreciation of the artistic excrescences of human existence. 

Two representative passages: 

"Literature, in fact, had been concerned with virtues and vices of a perfectly healthy sort, the regular functioning of brains of a normal conformation, the practical reality of current ideas, with never a thought for morbid depravities and other-worldly aspirations; in short, teh discoveries of these analysts of human nature stopped short at the speculations, good or bad, classified by the Church; their efforts amounted to no more than the humdrum research of a botanist who watches closely the expected development of ordinary flora planted in common or garden soil . . . Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had picked his way along abandoned or unexplored galleries and had finally reached those districts of the soul where the monstruous vegetations of the sick mind flourish." 

"In Zola the longing for some other existence took a different form. In him, there was no desire to migrate to vanished civilizations, to worlds lost in the darkness of time; his sturdy, powerful temperament, enamoured of the luxuriance of life, of full-blooded vigour, of moral stamina, alienated him from the artificial graces and the painted pallors of the eighteenth century, as also from the hieratic pomp, the brutal ferocity and the effeminate, ambiguous dreams of the ancient East. On the day when he too had been afflicted with this longing, this craving which in fact is poetry itself, to fly far away from contemporary society he was studying, he had fled to an idyllic region where the sap boiled in the sunshine; he had dreamed of fantastic heavenly copulations, of long earthly ecstasies, of fertiziling showers of pollen falling from the palpitating genitals of flowers; he had arrived at a gigantic pantheism, and with the Garden of Eden in which he placed his Adam and Eve he had created, perhaps unconsciously, a prodigious Hindu poem, singing the glories of the flesh, extolling, in a style whose broad patches of crude colour had something of the weird brilliance of Indian paintings, living animate matter, which by its own frenzied procreation revealed to man and woman the forbidden fruit of love, its suffocating spasms, its instinctive caresses, its natural postures." 

(The second half of that second passage really gets going, huh?) 

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this, and although I found it dull through many spots, these duller bits were consistently blown away by the superexceptional gems that stud the slow and plotless turtle shell of this "story." 

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
This book -- expectations for this book weren't so high thanks to so many low-star reviews on goodreads. But, hey, it exceeded expectations. This book -- it's not a novel or a collection of linked stories. It's autofiction in which a consistent authorial presence presents itself in three barely characterized characters, each with more similiarities than differences, each with girlfriends differentiated mostly by their names (this surely intentional undercharacterization interestingly blurs the edges between author, characters, and -- most importantly -- sad young literary readers, women and men alike). The chapter called "Isaac Babel" -- about a young writer's encounters with an older writer and a sense of the young writer's inevitable assumption of the older writer's role -- this chapter is excellent, five stars, maybe up there with "Guy de Maupassant," a Babel story referenced in the chapter. Toward the end, a chapter set in the West Bank dropped this one down to three stars for me -- I skimmed it a little. But mainly I liked reading about my demographic: eg, bits about dreams/aspirations, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, gyms, youthful self-comparisons with major past achievers, old cars, old friends marrying and making more and more money as one scrimps solo after graduate school, online and old-fashioned dating, and the sense of being too old before one's even anywhere near old. Was charmed by a classy old-school "Fitzgeraldian spirit" syntax tic -- a tic involving em dashes and repetitions, exactly like this sentence. Charmed also by the juxtaposition of Lenin et al. and the Russian Revolution etc with the characters and their situations. Disregard all reviews on goodreads that compare this to Franzen or DeLillo or that say this book lacks ideas -- those reviewers didn't really read the book (and/or haven't read DeLillo or Franzen). There's not much plot, but there are tons of ideas and insights and asides, consistently rendered with intelligence and charm. In a somehow non-nauseating way, it's like chick lit for the n + 1 set. The title probably should have been "All the Sad Young Male Political Journalists," but that's not a catchy enough play on the early Fitzgerald story collection. Anyway, this book -- this book's certainly a good read for sad young -- and young-ish -- literary men (and, sadly perhaps, for them and them only, most likely). 3+ stars, rounded up because I'd like to see more books that feel real like this 

Things: A Story of the Sixties & A Man Asleep by Georges Perec
Two early novellas in one book. "Things," the first novella, includes maybe some of the best autobiographical-seeming expository stretches (no dialogue, no traditional scenes) about life from age 21 to 30 (albeit here in the '60s in Paris and Tunisia) I've read. Perec's obsessive detail/description is like Nabokov but not as precious/obtuse, plus he's consistently insightful, often unusual, and so generous in terms of perception and wisdom. Someone should reissue this novella solo. 

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Part of my ongoing summer reading project, filling the not-so-gaping hole in my literary soul known as "The Brat Pack." Turns out, McInerney is NOT Bret Easton Ellis: McInerney's sentences seem tighter/more composed, clearer, sparser, plus he's more traditional, less willing to temporarily disorient a reader (all based on a very limited scan of their literary DNA so far). I like reading these books because they have semi-trashy reputatons, so I come to them with low expectations they easily surpass, being talented, insightful, entertaining, accessible, smart, funny, absolutely literary authors. Lo/behold, surprise/surprise: this one's not really about doing cocaine in early '80s NYC! Sure, there's the famous Bolivian Marching Powder early on, but otherwise "you" (second-person POV worked just fine for me) are only 24 years old and recently abandoned by your model wife, plus you're an aspiring writer/fact checker at what's pretty much the New Yorker. You hoover some lines occasionally but mostly you've hit bottom and are ready for a new start. It's a pretty traditional story, with above-average characterization, some humor (only a few LOLs, a lot more silent amusement), but it's the voice that won me over, the attitude of those tight snappy entertaining sentences. It's a coming-of-age book, like Less Than Zero, by a young man about a young man. I'll definitely read Brightness Falls, if not everything he's written. 

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
Maybe it helped that this reader attended a small progressive liberal arts college a few years after this book came out? Maybe this reader liked the various perspectives, the major glaring gaps/inconsistencies when the stories overlapped? Maybe this reader just liked reading about the young and the reckless now that he's on the other side of youthfulness/recklessness (he hopes)? Maybe this reader appreciated intertexual suggestions of Less Than Zero (Clay's in this), American Psycho (Patrick Bateman narrates a chapter and his younger brother narrates maybe a third of everything else), and even Donna Tartt's The Secret History (an odd group of Classics students "looking like undertakers" are mentioned). Mostly it felt real character-wise, content-wise, and I thought the structure was well-handled and kept me engaged despite relative plotlessness. Each of his books are a little different structurally, thematically, but always with a similar tone and tact -- I'll definitely read the rest.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Smog of War on Drugs–era LA as depicted by a young BEE (< 21 years old). 3.5 stars? Sort of reminded me of The Stranger. Coyotes, driving cars forever on coke, X, snuff films, young male whores, honesty re: emotionlessness as a means to avoid pain re: meaninglessness -- definitely has a softly beating moral heart beneath deeply tanned nihilistic skin. Tastefully paced, well-timed sensationalism though never really reveled in as in American Psycho -- this one's narrator averts his eyes from pretty much everything. Made no sounds while reading, but enjoyed reading, and said something stupid like "That was a good f--kin' book, man" when I finished reading. Surprising depth despite its surface. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Haven't been able to read this until just now, had too many "issues" with its author. But recently I felt whatever resentment etc release and so I gave it a try after Tinkers. Gilead, first off, surprised me with its humor and its clarity, both of which kept me engaged, not to mention graceful, lofted wisdom (which I expected to encounter, of course) that never really seemed pedantic thanks to the narrator's earnestness re: his doubts re: pretty much everything other than the nature of faith (ie, silence filling an empty church at dawn). I appreciated the baptizing cats, descriptions of water and light, and an ash-cake communion in the foreground with a ruined church in the background as the old women release their long hair. If 30 or 40 pages were cut between pages 140 and 200, I'd have been much more enthusiastic -- thought that 60-page stretch dragged as it introduced the complication of the narrator's concerns about young Boughton. In any case (<-- that's a Marilynne catchphrase, folks), I dog-eared dozens of pages, sometimes the top and bottoms of pages. Will maybe read it again and will definitely give Housekeeping another go. I liked how I felt as I read this book, what it did to my perceptions, how I once or twice referred to something as a "grace" . . . 

Detective Story by Imre Kertész 
The text of this book should be submitted as the new dictionary definition of "ineluctable." I predicted the sad little plot twist but otherwise really "enjoyed" how this one swirled at first in semi-confounding spirals before it took off on a 45-degree angle, rising drama-wise. The translation seemed a bit wonky sometimes, especially before the story clarified and took off for me. Recommended if you're thinking about writing a syllabus for a class called "The Literature of Atrocity." 

Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews
Deftly described private moments from all over the map (Bering Strait, Gaza Strip, Connecticut), each captured in its momentarily glorious one-ness, wonderfully complemented with stain-like illustrations. Thought it could've played more interconnective games than it did, but I guess each little section is necessarily solo? Many amusing images, if no LOLs, but still sort of formally inspiring for me (despite its nongenerative focus). Masturbatory, sure, but not self-indulgent. Unique, vital/virile, quick lil' pleasures. 

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
3.75 stars (vacilated for me between 4 and 3 stars but gets better as it moves along and ends well)? Feels absolutely real, or at least feels like his non-fiction. First section is in third person, second section is in first person, yet there's no real difference in how they feel -- or maybe it's about Jeff Atman dissolving into an I and then, after pooing a lot and soaking up the Ganges, transforming into goo-headed, guru-ish egolessness (dying hair in first section, unselfconsciously dressing like Gandhi in second section)? First section is about fullfilling desire (um, what's with the finger-buggery in the last three books I've read?!), second section is about transcending desire, but mainly it's about the old familiar Geoff Dyer narrative voice cruising around in amusing, likeable, insightful fashion. Found myself mildly permasmiling midway through the first part, and again toward the end. Noise-wise, I made lots of small happy gurgles while reading: laughs were less reflexive than usual - more like short-lived recognitions of obviously funny lines. Overall, a quick, enjoyable, absolutely Geoff Dyer-ian read. Otherwise, I've not quite forgiven him for his review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, wherein he spends half the thing talking about the use of "sort of" and "kind of." Because of that review, I was sort of not rooting for this book at first, and was definitely kind of on the lookout for cliched phrases, many of which I noticed, especially toward the beginning, which I very generously took to intentionally indicate Jeff's "vagueness" . . . the language seems to improve as the character/narrator's life improves, and by the end, especially the awesomely fun last paragraph or so, the language gets kind of sort of blissed out and gooey. 

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky 
DFW is maybe in the process of achieving literary sainthood, so this transcript is like a textual shroud of Turin. The open rawness of watching DFW "wrestle with burly psychic self-consciousness figures" and talk in "crazy circles" lets you spend some serious time with the three-dimensional writer saint himself. Lots of riffs were familiar from essays/other interviews, but this seems like the real raw thing, a pretty comprehensive swipe at everything important to him at the time, all of it animated with dogs, copious dip spit, gestures, atmospherics -- in fact, I liked thinking of it as a screenplay for an animated film like "Waking Life," except not nearly as philosophically sophomoric/bad.  It's an invaluable document about his thoughts on Infinite Jest, how it got written, published, and publicized, his reaction to its reception, etc. Sometimes it started to feel like a long therapy session, not in a bad way -- I was struck by how often he used words like "fear" and "afraid" and "terror" when talking about pop culture and media. At times such talk feels a little dated, like a document of a comparatively peaceful American era after the fall of the Soviet Union, before 9-11/the rise of Al Qaeda, and before the collapse of the economy, when the only thing to fear was the hole in the center of swirlin' whirlpoolin' empty-calorie sense data. Interestingly, at one point he presages Obama's speeches about taking responsibility, which reminded me that he died a few days after the announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate -- I'd linked the two immediately, not really knowing the extent of his "cancer of the soul." [I had no real complaints with the bracketed interjections -- I thought they were sometimes a little underdeveloped/unnecessary, but they always treaded lightly and respectfully:]. Anyway, after a point I couldn't stop reading -- I welcome all further artifacts of this peculiarly infectious, enlivening, really (3x) intelligent, compassionate consciousness. 

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Read stray pages of this long ago when it was toilet reading where I lived one summer in college -- deemed it idiotic smut. Loved the movie years later. Just finished it and found it totally devilish delicious satirical genius. Pornographically exaggerated descriptions of haute fashion, exclusive restaurants, stereo equipment, extreme "Itchy & Scratchy"-style sadism, plus elaborate Penthouse Forum-ish threesomes with hardbody whores, completed with in-depth appreciations of the best of Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis & The News. So funny, if "funny" is determined by the sounds I made while reading -- the uncomfortable chortle, the percussive snort, the starry-eyed cackle, the shaking-head sigh at its BOLDNESS. Minimal paranoia re: legal or existential repercussions for brutally offing all the homeless, the hardbodies, and the whores of late '80s Manhattan. But what really did it for me were the expertly handled scenes in which Wall Street types talked about NOTHING for pages. Also, the description of an old photo of the father in a straightjacket-like six-button double-breasted B&B suit, standing next to topiary animals at his own father's estate, with "something the matter with his eyes." That's the only mention of potential daddy issues. Mommy issues are dealt with in a quick scene in a nursing home -- mommy's not so communicative and wears $200 black Ray Bans, a gift from her son. Everything else re: "why?" is suggested -- sometimes it's pure nihilism, sometimes sort of like extremely effed-up soul-fighting against the trappings of super-rich superficiality. For example, during a particularly inventive scene toward the end involving a rat, a generous slice of brie, and a spread-eagle woman, the narrator says: "I can already tell it's going to be a characteristically useless, senseless death, but then I'm used to the horror. It seems distilled, even now it fails to upset or bother me." That's maybe the book's challenge: can Bret Easton Ellis upset readers with this character's descriptions of brutality? (Or maybe the question isn't "can?" but "why do it?") I'd say he does so with unquestionable inventiveness, and not just for sheer sensationalism's sake. He effortlessly walks the cultural criticism/complicity line, which is why so many reviews on here are either disgusted (these readers also probably find The Smiths's lyrics -- eg, "Cemetary Gates" -- depressing instead of hilarious) or overjoyed by the unstable dynamic of sometimes feeling close to and othertimes really distant from the narrator, a hyper-privileged insider eviscerating everything atop the social pyramid, manifesting the collective unconcious's desire to "kill yuppie scum." I was amazed at the audacity of the book, the execution of it, the creation of the character and the consistently evoked time and place. Uber-flowing sentences throughout. Technically awesome, thematically gnarly stuff. Unforgettable images galore. It maybe could've been 300 instead of 400 pages, but otherwise no complaints. Very readable despite near-plotlessness. Also, again, it sparked more reflexive readerly vocalization than anything I've read in a long time. But so then why not a fifth star? Maybe because the amazingly consistent perspective/approach naturally gets repetitive? Maybe the constraints on the narrator kept it from the next level, which maybe could only have been achieved with more explicit self-critique/philosophizing re: his psychology/upbringing and the surrounding culture/everything, which probably would've undermined a lot of what's already great about it? "Whew," I said when I finished. "That was a good book." 

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
A long (sometimes seemingly endless) series of vignettes, some engaging, some dull, or powerful, or philosophical, or insane, often gorgeous (dogearred a few dozen pages). Reliability-wise, it seemed tidal to me: every wave of unreliable plot progression seemed swept in and out by seriously detailed and therefore faithful-seeming representations of reality (especially light healthy artful meals). Lots of talk on here about implausiblities, but I think they're fundamental to this one's design: the plot's as believable as long-lingering obsessions about youth, remorse, jealousy, walking on water. Surprised this hasn't been made into a movie. Distinct characters, a surprising amount of tension and action mixed in with long stretches of the narrator's self-concern. My first Iris Murdoch -- won't be my last. Not really exciting stuff, but she's got an absolutely fail-safe sensibility (bullshit detector didn't go off -- the opposite, in fact.) 

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli
"Wah," I said aloud when finishing this. "God. Lovely. Really great," I also said. Unputdownably beautiful. A blatantly philsophical, simple love story. Vivid characters. Funny. Touching: in fact, it successfully revealed the presence of my heartstrings -- sentimental loon I am not, but I definitely felt something pull in the vicinity of my chest region toward the end. Sort of like Jimmy Corrigan meets a way more formally sophisticated The Elegance of the Hedgehog, spiked with references to the Odyssey, apparently (so sayeth the blurbs I just read). The blurbs also say it's "difficult," but the time shifts won't be a problem if you're semi-accustomed to Faulkner and Chris Ware -- handled really fluidly and elegantly here, with the various temporal threads color-coded (eg, yellow pages indicate a dream sequence) the way Faulkner originally wanted for The Sound and the Fury. Will lend my copy to my mama and will read again when she returns it. Perfect deep winter company. 

The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie by Agota Kristof
The first part ("The Notebook") was wonderfully effed-up reading: second-person plural ("we") narrator and short chapters, studded with sensationalist psychoerotic gruesomeness, focused on supersmart sinister twins during wartime....more The first part ("The Notebook") was wonderfully effed-up reading: second-person plural ("we") narrator and short chapters, studded with sensationalist psychoerotic gruesomeness, focused on supersmart sinister twins during wartime. Spareness plus unspecified time/space coordinates gave it a mythic/fabulist vibe. Two-hundred pages of controlled horrifics, albeit with maybe a bit of a guilty sense for me that this wasn't quite "Waiting for the Barbarians" or "Blindness" or "In the Penal Colony" and maybe I was more into it for the psychoerotic insanities than stuff about how folks endure the genocidal atrocities, enemy occupations, etc, that warp them? The second and third sections fell way off from the first section, mostly I think because the awesome second-person plural point of view in "The Notebook" shifts to third person ("The Proof"), then first person ("The Third Lie"). Also, it turns out I must've really been swayed by the psychoerotic nastinesses in the first book because their lack in the other two I very much noted. I skimmed the last book, admittedly -- not engaged by the writing (mainly) or the unreliable nature of storytelling subtextual schtuff. But still, the first book was 4.75 stars for me (at least) and some of the second one was not so bad either (3 stars?). Something else: it's clear that the author also writes for the theatre. The first two parts are so spare they're practically scripts. Very little exposition, mostly dialogue, a few stage directions. Works perfectly for the very young, sympathetic, batshit narrator(s). (The Lars Von Trier adaptation is gonna rock.) 

Fun House by Alison Bechdel 
Read this in one Saturday night at home sitting (and undercovers reclining). Had to finish it once I hit page 100. Perfect balance of telling (in the text) and showing (in the drawings). At times I thought it was almost exposition-heavy, but the straight-forward drawings convey a good deal re: the characters, the setting, the emotions. Amazing how it so often streams its story through a Proust, Joyce, Homer filter (it's Colette and Kate Millet who really work for her) without getting annoying. (And by successfully associating itself with canonical greatness she raises the bar for her story so it might one day assume canonical greatness, as well?) A funny moment for me when she's reading at her collge library in a womb chair and I said hmmm I wonder if she went to Oberlin? I googled the author and, yep, graduated in '81. A few pages later she depicts Tappan Square and Wilder Bowl. OF COURSE SHE WENT TO OBERLIN. Anyway, an enjoyable, moving, engaging, formally grounded literary novel of the graphic sort. 

A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell
Kevin is a righteous writer/editor/Powell's small-press section curator dude I know from the early Aught's online literary world and Eyeshot. We're both Sixers fans, and at one point in his memoir he mentions Sedale Threatt, the best-named backup point guard during Charles Barkley's (or anyone's) era. Started reading this right after the Canadians beat the US in hockey and finished a little after midnight. I rarely read 216 pages in a single sitting, but I found the short chapters consumable, the language clear and affectationless, and the pace at which he provided serious information about himself and his family intriguing. The language acts the same no matter the content. And, despite the title, most of the short chapters are almost sentimental in their nostalgia for the "common" moments of childhood and adolescence, something I generally find sort of pukey. But not here. In part because without revving up the language or freaking things out at any time, in the exact same very even, nearly anonymous American voice (a good thing), he intersperses confessions re: his family's dysfunction and his, um, lowest moments. At times I was thinking why am I reading this? Why confess all this? But I think the effect for me was like a slideshow, with each image eliciting associations from own my childhood studded with long-gone friends, KISS concerts, Sedale Threatt, and a little later on, shooting hoops for hours (in the pitch dark, in my case) on a certain psychoactive. I guess I'm saying I found it "relatable" -- a very steady, mature, accessible tone lets this connection happen. Insightful, without dropping bombs of hard-won wisdom etc. Other than when I said SEEEEEDALE THREEEEEEAT! or when I emitted one big LOL, I read silently, patiently. Superadmirably honest in content and form. Definitely worth the trip down ye olde memory lane, the author's and the reader's. 

Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon
The ideal high-lit bathroom book! Flash-fictionistas better be aware of this one as a model of the form's strongest suit. Fabulist-realist tragihumor, semi-Kafka, semi-Auster, semi-Brothers Grimm? Almost every one of the 100 anecdotes (none longer than 3 pages) ends with a percussive laugh (despite never being "jokey") as pressure created through the first few paragraphs is released at the end. Absolutely clear prose, good-natured, steady, mature. Loved it -- essentially -- merits fifth star (on scales of 1 to 5) for uniqueness, plus the perception-enhancing sense that life's long and tremendous. Didn't know that Mr. Lennon was such a badass. Definitely will read more of his stuff. 

The Messenger by Charles Wright
Definitely the best autobiographical episodic short novel (133 pages) I've ever read by/about a 29-year-old African American messenger, bisexual whore, Korean War veteran, compassionate/attentive/righteous writer/intellectual. A great depiction of late-'50s NYC, especially for lovers of life in a now-extinct seedy/alluring midtown Manhattan: "The pace, the variety, the anonymity, the sense of walking on glittering glass eggs, walking in a city like a big-time prostitute with her legs cocked open." Quick non-erotic/non-acrobatic sex scenes, more like needy transactions. He describes the eyes of an elegant older lady alone at a bar like this: "She had eyes like a half-closed rose." Funny. REAL. Existentially insightful (bright streaks of exposition re: race and class and life and death). Unpredictable. Things sort of fell apart for me as he tried to tie things together at the end. Regardless, definitely worth it for the first 100+ pages. A really talented writer who seems to have burned out early (ie, didn't "go the distance and live to be 110" per the James Baldwin blurb). His obiturary says he "vanished into alcoholism and despair." Looking forward to his other two books . . . (Note: this is obviously not the famous Irish poet of the same name.) 

The Dolphin People by Torsten Krol
Just spent several enjoyable hours finishing off the final 150+ pages. Really difficult to put down. As easy to read as watching a film -- ie, perfectly smooth-sailing prose. Seemed a bit too young-adultishy at first for me, narrated by a 17-year-old boy, but the tone (a little like Phillip Pullman) matures along with the narrator. Reminded me of reading all day in bed when I was a kid, transported, fully engaged, startled, laughing, pleasurably cringing at certain scenes. Won't discuss the content since to say anything would give too much away. Let's just say it's constantly surprising and horrific and wonderfully engineered and executed. A sure-fire cure for cabin fever this winter. 

Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard
Released a long exhalation and said "Jesus" when I finished this. Not for the faint o' heart. It's sort of like that movie Precious except this is the Austrian, high-literary, grammar-school-under-Nazism/Allied-air-raids/tuberculosis sanatorium (after all, the author's initials are "T.B.") version of surviving a worst-case scenario/hell. The language isn't as exagerratedly composed re: repetitions and theme/variations on every page as in his fiction, but the same special Bernhardian unrelenting bleakness appears throughout. So bleak it's infectious -- definitely a bleaker outlook for me this last week. Essential for understanding the relation between his life and his fiction (attaining this understanding should interest exactly seven people who read this). Amazing to see a favorably portrayed character (his grandfather, a not-so-ebullient writer). The first two sections about grammar school, his grandfather, and WWII merit at least six stars, whereas the post-WWII respiratory hospital half of the book felt more like four (on a 1-to-5 star scale). Was gonna read another Bernhard book, Extinction,next but I think -- considering the onset of my annual bout of seasonal affective disorder -- to do so would either annihilate or obliterate me . . . or both. 

Das Kapital: A Novel of Love & Money Markets by Viken Berberian
Very odd sequence o' events led me to read this: a few years ago my mama loved Berberian's first book, The Cyclist. Several times in Iowa City I held a lovely used hardcover but never bought it for $10. A few years later I listened to an interview with Michael Silverblatt about Das Kapital. A week or so ago I read an essay by Malcolm Gladwell about Nassim Nicholas Taleb and hedge funders who bet on the market to collapse -- this essay originally appeared in the New Yorker well before the market actually collapsed and Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The next day, I found Das Kapital used for $3 in Philadelphia -- a perfectly fresh hardcover. I started reading. It was about a fictional version of someone very much like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a "quant" who talks about black swans. Berberian's book is definitely attentively written and deserves close reading -- playful and unpredictable. The characters stand for ideas (empircism, love, Situationism). It's very simple, but charming, and seems like it came out a year too soon in 2007. Definitely worth it if you're ever in the mood for some light-hearted art fiction re: love, terrorism, and the recent high finance scene. 

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
They say good writing asks more questions than it answers. This only asks questions, leaving readers to only connect (and laugh a lot). Sometimes it sounds like self-interrogation, other times like direct address to the reader, other times like a high-brow Seinfeld routine ("Did you ever notice . . .?"), other times like a really long questionnaire for a comphrehensive online profile re: everything you know and remember and never knew and forgot. The ideal stocking stuffer for the good-natured lit snob in your life. Definitely worth the sticker price 

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
Really loved this book. Found myself thinking in the narrator's voice. So many laughs. So clever. So surprisingly insightful and almost "emotional" at times. The ending -- once they go on the Star Trek mission when the love interest miraculously appears -- felt sort of forced plot-wise. But who cares? Otherwise loved it. Also, loved the language. So perfectly crisp and clear yet never reduced, allowing the scenes and humor to happen -- should be said more often for books that no one would call "self-consciously language-y" or "about the writing" . . . 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace 
On a scale of one to five stars, I'll give this one six stars minus one because I feel like DFW wanted it that way, that he (who can clearly do anything) consciously engineered its lackluster end -- "a failed entertainment" was the original subtitle. Sometimes thought it was as good as it gets, sometimes better than the best it gets. Other times I was lost but cruising ahead to get to the good as it gets parts. Disappointed in the last 100 pages or so. Wasn't into the footnotes. I think it's intentionally constructed to "fail," to let the reader down as an "entertainment," to create in the reader the sort of sadness that comes with unfulfilled expectations, a sadness felt by all the characters, a fundamentally American sadness that's the jester's gist? . . . The book is structured (DFW says it's structured like a Sierpinski Gasket) like the Eschaton game played at the tennis academy, a game based on a NORAD nuclear wargame simulation. No winners, impossibly complicated, massive (fictional) destruction everywhere . . . Loved the characters. Loved the more conventional scenes. Loved the discursive parts re: depression, suicide, marijuana addiction. Loved the endlessly creative digressions, even when endlessly horrific. Loved the play on the oft-parodied Bergman playing-chess-with-Death thing: here it's Hal playing chess on the run (ie, tennis) with Ortho "The Darkness" Stice in all-black Fila gear. Loved that "Madame Psychosis" suggests that significant word in Ulysses ("metempsychosis"). Loved, most of all, the simple writerly descriptions, the kick-ass similes, the good ol' artistic amplification of perception. Loved that Mario isn't fully described til about page 610. Could go on endlessly about awesome qualities, and could definitely go on for a bit about its drawbacks (beyond the ebonics section) . . . In 1997, I almost bought a signed first edition hard cover in a Barnes and Noble in downtown Boston. Should've. Alas. Hmmm. Ultimately: lots and lots of love for this but also feel let down a little, not only by the author's suicide but also by the monumental novel that seems to almost check out too . . . Also, it needs to be said that while walking home from work reading IJ, while waiting for a light to change, some mid-20s nerd-chic bicyclist (surely a recent liberal arts school english major grad) passed me then doublebacked and accompanied me as I crossed the street, asking what section I was on, saying it was his favorite book, he'd read it a bunch of times -- it almost seemed like he wanted to hug me for reading it while walking across Washington Avenue (a very uncommon demonstration of bookish brotherly love in Philadelphia -- and a really good indication of this book's greatness). It's definitely a book that fills the world, enhances perception, introduces into one's e-mails extraneous conversational mimetic tics like sort of and kind of and and so but then. Addictive prose styling. Funny that "funny" isn't really among the top 10 adjectives I'd use to describe this, though there are some serious LOLs. Anyway, really excellently awesome and over- and underwhelming in a (I think intentionally) heartbreaking way: after 981 pages plus footnotes you're left on the beach with the tide way out (DFW apparently loved Larkin and Larkin's most famous lines are probably: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . . Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself") Easily one of my favorite contemporary writers before I read this, which only advanced his standing in ye olde Eyeshot canon. Required listening. Definitely must re-read one day. 

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Renegade: The Life and Times of Mark E. Smith
Inspiring to read the words of M.E.S. himself, role model for all who might fancy a few pints down at their local, who savor the subtleties of the occasional sporting event, who openly disrespect daft twats if they deserve it, and are fierce when it comes to aesthetic independence. 

Distant Star by Roberto Bolano
A much better primer for 2666 than The (super-put-down-able) Savage Detectives -- this one's short and involves the same sort of style, themes, characters, geographic all-over-the-placeness, lists of books and writers (some real, some so obscure they may as well be made up), soaring peaks, and dry valleys, but in this one there's skywriting! Definitely a recommended wading pool if you're wary of the hype/heft of 2666.

Stoner by John Williams 
The ideal midpoint on the stylistic continuum. Blurbs talk of its "perfect novel"-ness, and somehow, amazingly, that's what I was thinking while reading: maybe the perfect traditional tone (attentive, steady, transparent prose that occasionally requires re-reading for savoring/remembering), a story perfectly paced, no gimmicks or catchy chapter titles or cleverness, and yet so deeply imagined and engaging thanks to character, setting, atmosphere, and the steady, readable, "anonymous American prose," as Mr. Conroy called it -- maybe that's what it is about this book -- it's an ideal example of "anonymous American prose"? Prose worthy of someone named "John Williams." Prose like this: "In his 43rd year, William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another." The novel's keyword is "inimical," a befitting semi-studious word that's repeated three or four times toward the end, a subtle thing that almost feels heavy-handed in a book this well done -- a perfect word re: Stoner's academic/stoic asylum from the pettiness, cruelty, and disappointments of the world. Despite its "well done"-ness and "perfection," I was never nauseated by the craft on display -- and that's because the craft wasn't "on display" as much as absolutely "in service" of the story. Also, at the end, there's a beautiful trick that transforms the reader into Stoner. I miss the old lug already. 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Please read this enjoyable, elegantly complex, brainy, huge-hearted, and ultimately MOVING book. Highly recommended for everyone . . . Cynically, it could be called "Jasmine Tea for the Covert Intellectual's Soul" -- or it could be seen as a smart variation on a Bridget Jonesy chick lit wherein characters talk of true beauty, tea, Ozu, life, death, Tolstoy, and moments outside time, instead of men, marriage, and their weight. At first, I semi-resisted the super-smart "likeable misfit" narrators, but warmed to it once those characters came to life. You also could probably deride it for perpetuating stereotypes of Japanese aesthetic elegance, and you could maybe doubt the popular readerly manipulation tactic of structuring things in short chapters a la The Da Vinci Code . . . But more generously, you could say that, once the stories of the young rich genius girl and the older autodidact concierge begin to merge, for lack of a better word, it's wonderful -- more so, it's amazing that such a philosophically minded, idea-laden, high-art-infused novel can deliver such living, loveable characters who, by the end, had me laughing, smiling, and welling up (something I rarely do when reading) . . . About a month ago, my mama sent the following e-mail: "Tomorrow you MUST order or purchase 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery. Is supposedly an international bestseller. I fell in love with this book. There is a strong philosophical base but it's like 'The Last Samurai,' Helen Dewitt's book. That good. Incredible. Just started it but it's better than anything I've read in a long time . . . since Dewitt's book maybe. Trust your momma on this one." . . . Here's a quote: ". . . pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." . . . Also: ignore the cover image; this one's suitable for all ages and all genders . . . Also: there's that thing about how a good book can save someone from suicide: this is one of those potentially life-saving, literary antidepressants . . . Also: what won me over early on was a description of an aboriginal australian rules football player who was moving so much faster than everyone he also seemed to be moving SLOWER than everyone on the field -- an observation I've also made about speedsters Allen Iverson, Brian Westbrook, and DeSean Jackson, so I felt like I could trust the author since we'd experienced and tried to express the same oddly paradoxical sports-related perception 

2666 by Roberto Bolano
Something wholly positive that can be said about the posthumous 2666 is that it's not summarizable in plot or theme -- its dimensions suggest the entirety of life. Seriously! And so all we can really think to do is offer a telling quotation: ". . . history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness." Another thing that can be said: this monstrous book -- structured in five parts -- offers plentiful instructions about how to read its proliferation of instants. (Plot summary available here.) Something semi-critical that can be said is that, at times, especially early on (first 275 of 894 pages), we sometimes impatiently derided this monster as a hybrid of Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Chandler -- a brutal borderlands high-lit mystery that suggested more than it ever actually signified. But then came a speech by a former Black Panther and a black New Yorker, reluctant sportswriter named Oscar Fate and things took off, especially once the book offered multitudinous murders; a prodigiously pissing, iconoclastic Penitent; and the massive German, Klaus, in a Mexican prison.We admit to maybe skimming a dozen or so gratuitous descriptions of murdered women, and we weren't so high on the 2666 hog through the end of the fourth part. But then the fifth part, mainly set in Europe during and after WWII Germany, is more than worth it. Like reaching the Rockies and the West after driving across the plains en route from New Jersey to California -- all the better because you'd made it that far. At one point, maybe the climax of a story without traditional narrative arc, 2666 states that the literary masterpiece is like a crucified Jesus -- in 2666, a Romanian general with a foot-long schlong is crucified, by the way -- that needs the thieves on either side to conceal it. The masterpiece is also compared to a lake in a forest of minor novels. You could discuss this book endlessly, or never say a word and just sit there in respectful speechlessness. It's more an experience than an entertainment. A highwater mark for ambition, authority, oomph, audacity, execution. And at the end, there's a reverberating sense that it needs to be read again in the totally vain hope that all the clattering echoes cohere into an a-ha moment of thematic clarity. The structure requires the reader to make associative diagrams (like the charts in the second part), something that's essential to this one's "fun." Total authority in the prose ensures that such associative thinking never just seems like an exercise in making "castles in the air" -- ie, you trust the author knows what he's doing because the prose is so strong and the story so seemingly carefully unfurled. A proliferation of images circle around and conceal and suggest the masterpiece's center -- all now living will all be long forgotten by 2666? (Spoiler warning: what good is posterity when all you're remembered for is Neapolitan-flavored ice cream!) Something that can also be said is that there's no cookie-cutter poignancy or precious, luminous prose. The opposite of everything talked about in writing workshops is on display. Characters are unforgettable, but this is not an investigation of character. This one isn't concerned about the so-called "emotional angle," either: not a humid eye in the house. Instead, five pairs of cat's eyes rise in the dark, lacking "spatiotemporal coherence," during a feverish, clandestine buggery session. And another thing: something that's negatively affected our reading lately has been the abyss between the blurbs on the back of books and our estimation of the words on the pages. The blurbs on the back of 2666 are uberlaudatory, but this was nevertheless the first new book we've read in a while where our blurb-induced expectations were matched and maybe even exceeded. Compared to the blurbs (even the one by the inimitable Vinnie Wilhelm on the cover of our advanced reading copy), our final sense of the book is a distinct but equivalent awe. 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
An ideal book for writer runners (or running writers), but also probably worth it for non-running/non-writing readers as there's enough straight talk and suggestion about serious themes: enduring pain, aging, the importance of routine, self-awareness/alertness. Quick, lean, honest, at times amazing, occasionally mundane, definitely worthwhile. BUT WAIT! The really cool thing about this book is that it's also about authority. Murukami has run +25 marathons (including a +62-mile supermarathon) and written several novels. He's repeatedly done very difficult things to do. It makes sense to listen up when someone like him talks about what he talks about when he talks about how he's sucessfully spent his life. Some seem to object that this book wouldn't have been published by an unpublished author. But the deal is it COULDN'T HAVE BEEN WRITTEN by anyone else . . . This second part is more a review of a book review than a review of a book: we just read Geoff Dyer's kind of idiotic review in the Book Review. It's sort of idiotic because half of it is sort of devoted to the translated use of "sort of" and "kind of." We used to really like Geoff Dyer, but we think he just pretty seriously slipped. Much better would've been a quick suggestion that a Knopf editor could have cleaned things a bit, or a more generous approach saying that the "sort of" repetitions make for easy, conversational, congenial reading, or maybe even an interpretative stretch about a Japanse hesitancy to make unqualified assertions? Instead, Geoff Dyer condescends to Murakami (a man who's written how many novels and run how many marathons?) when Dyer suggests that Murakami is uncool for listening to Clapton or the Lovin' Spoonful! We're sure when Dyer writes about fingerblasting his girlfriend in Southeast Asia ("my fingers grew so wet it was like oil pouring through them"), he listens to something way cooler - my guess: later work of Todd Rundgren. The immortal masterpieces of Sting? Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's duets with Eddie Vedder? The Buena Vista Social Club?! We also realized yesterday that this book helped our endurance while on a long run - wasn't feeling so hot but we thought of Haruki on the 62+ mile run and made it all the way home without stopping. If just to please Geoff Dyer, you ask what were we listening to? "Paris au Printemps," a live album by Public Image Limited -- our ideal running music. 

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
In "Conversations with My Father," the narrator's father wants her to tell a simple story about simple people, like a story by de Maupassant, and she says, "I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: 'There was a woman ...' followed by a plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." I loved the open destinies of most of these stories. Some will require multiple rereading to memorize funny lines. Literary jitbags would deride the stories as "voicey" but they're voices coming together -- like the women singing in the story "Politics" -- to secure a playground in an urban, sociopoliticized community. Deep POV, so you're always so immersed you're sometimes not sure what's up, who's who, which works when you wholly trust the recklessly careful, rhythmic, angular playfulness of the language: "Old bearded men walked by, thumbs linked behind their backs, all alike, the leftover army of the Lord." 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Maybe 70K words formatted to fill 287 pages, as quick a read as "Bridget Jones," but not as applicable to one's life? A simple story. The perfect beach read for pessimistic survivalists. A typical Cormac Mc world: unrelentingly humorless, brutal, often gorgeous (and often over-the-top) Faulknerian prose ("unremembered," "unravaged," etc), small oases of masculine affection among endless acres of burnt earth. As it's suggested in the book, the story itself is a nightmare we need to dream or else we've given up. Memorable. Worthwhile. Incredible ability to help you imagine scenes and landscapes through a pane of quick, spare, evocative prose. But subtextually it didn't seem to me on the same level as other otherworldly allegories like "Blindness" or "Waiting for the Barbarians," maybe 'cause, in general there's something in McCarthy's prose that I respect but don't quite fully buy? Or maybe because this one's more about individual survival (as in his typical high-lit "Westerns") against starvation, the elements, stray bad guys etc, than the survival of societies, or surviving within one that's gone totally wacky? Anyway, definitely an enjoyable book about the destruction of humanity and the endurance of what's human, or some Oprah-ready blurboid like that. 

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
Said "wow" after finishing the perfect ending. Nothing hokey or overdramatic, feels absolutely real and therefore wholly fictional in the best sense. Perfectly focused in terms of plot, setting, detail, character. After a while, unwritten expository stuff is suggested about caring about work, about patience, diligence, compassion, humility, the comforts of routine. All these themes are also formally reflected in the language and approach. Slow and short and understated and subtly deep and good. I think I'm going to read it again right now. 

Netherland by Joseph O'Neil
An admirable (more than enviable) read? I really admired the prose at times, especially when describing NYC. Learned a lot about cricket, too. But didn't quite believe in Chuck or even the narrator, felt the author breathing life into a seam in the back of his characters' necks. Didn't love that the narrator makes $10,000 each working day, or has $2 million in savings. Didn't laugh or smile or chortle at much of anything. Made few noises while reading. But again, I really respected the prose 90% of the time and how the author conjured NYC. The so-called "emotional angle" felt sort of false or forced - and childhood backstories always seemed to inconveniently slow the present story, almost to the point where I rushed through stuff about growing up in the Hague, about his parents, again because it felt added after the fact, tacked on. With all that said, all I did last night was read till I'd finished the last 150 pages. And I wasn't at all dissatisfied while or after reading it. But it doesn't seem to live up to its blurbs. A book that's definitely worth reading, but I'm not sure I'll remember it much in a year. Sort of like Walter Kirn's "Up in the Air," which also was on the cover of the NYT's Book Review a few years ago. Well done, a serious literary tone, serious themes, well-rendered scenes, engaging exposition, but ultimately it reads maybe too much like a performance of serious literary fiction? Not enough of a sense that real blood and guts (and humor) are on the page (too artificial)? Not risky enough (too determined)? 3.45678910 out of 5 stars? 

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of all the writing by writers in their early 20s I've read (and written), this book is down the street and around the corner from most. I wish I'd read about the Romantic Egotist before I wrote a book about Egotourism that also takes place in the Princeton area. (I loved when Amory Blaine biked at night with a friend from P'ton to my hometown.) Fitzgerald writes sharp, swervy, gorgeous, clever sentences, pretty much always with his eyes on the socio-existential prize. Also, really funny: 30 LOLs, at least. Self-consciously episodic in structure, with a conventional, linear, there-and-back again, rising arc (NOT lacking structure, as so many muffinheads might say; the plot is propelled by Amory's thoughts about his emotional/intellectual progression more than old-fashioned conflict/resolution). Also, I think he's conscious of all the potential criticisms re: class -- he seems to me more often critical than complicit (eg, the end of his relationship with Rosalind, not to mention the final rant in the car). It's a lot like Tolstoy's Confession, but here the Egotist steps into the labyrinth of the rest of his life and realizes he knows himself and nothing else. 

Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket by Frank Conroy
I loved the old guy -- and read this in the summer after his death. When I finished I said aloud "damn that was a good book". He includes the exclamation "Veblen!" toward the end, which is really weird since I have a story where the narrator exclaims "Thorstein!" -- Both Frank and I apparently were/are into Thorstein Veblen. No wonder I liked him. Also, though, yo, this book is slight and thoroughly enjoyable for a memoir about a preppie island, since it's about how this preppie island changed over time, lost authenticity. Great ancedotes and conveyance of wisdom/experience (not necessarily bragging) seemingly worked over and over for years orally (surely over drinks) and finally committed to print. Feels real because it's real. 

The Fall by Mick Middles and Mark E. Smith
This is totally peripatetic-uh, interview-heavy, awesome intermittent reading-uh (of a spectacularly joyous sort-uh), that is-uh, if you're currently totally obsessed-uh by The Fall-uh, otherwise I wouldn't bother-uh, or better yet-uh, I'd listen me to some Mark E. Smith & friends-uh then read this sucker on the loo-uh . . . 

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
First-person Zuckerman. My fave sort. Enjoyable, readable. Generous conversational narration with typical Shakespearean flourishes. Trailblazes a new genre of chick lit for the geriatric set: instead of being all about men, marriage, fashion, and babies, it's about death, impotence, incontinence, dead 20th century literary figures, senility, and arrow of desires aimed at the much-younger loins of alluring ladies. Like Everyman, I felt this one was a little less than Roth can do. Everyman felt like a sketch for a Roth novel -- and in a way it may have been a sketch for Exit Ghost, which feels like 4/5ths of a recent Roth book, compared to Plot Against America or American Pastoral or even The Human Stain. Lots of theatrical dialogue speeds things up, as though he's in a rush, self-consciously, to get this story out before his mind dissolves. It's a fine story, with occasional stereotypes he presents to a sort of readerly queasiness but then to which he miraculously applies pages of extraordinarily generous, flowing, insightful prose till the semi-jarring ughness of a plot twist or character revelation is totally triaged, that is, made believable in such a way that you, or I at least, admire the man's audacity. Almost a great book. But almost a great book that, if great, might not have been as great as it is, because a failure to be great is sort of required of this one's thematic content? A dissolution? Repetition not for emphasis but as a memory aid? Totally worth reading. Quick. Fun. A great essayistic eulogy on George Plimptom so surprisingly placed in the novel I feel like I should have written SPOILER WARNING before I wrote this sentence. 

The Weight of the World by Peter Handke
A book I use to keep from offing myself when I'm feeling shitty. Makes me see the world more clearly, amps perception, especially when depression closes eyes. It's a journal of perceptions (a slumping man sits up as a lovely lady walks by, then slumps again once she's gone, etc) and aphorisms and brief interactions organized in diary format over a year and a half as the writer goes to Paris, has a nervous breakdown, and sort of recovers. He has a daughter named A. There's actually more narrative here than you'd expect, though I've only read it once straight through. Usually I just keep it at my bedside, bounce around before sleep. If you've seen Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," you might recognize some of the lines in here as being really similar to what those two angels say to each other in the beginning -- that's 'cause Handke co-wrote the screenplay . . . EXCEPTIONAL bathroom reading, or pre-sleep reading when you're sort of drunk but not seeing double, or (again) when you need reading to recharge perception -- throw the cobwebs from your eyes and spread your washing proper! 

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe
If you've never read this one and you're looking for a shortish novel that rocked hard enough to win the dude the Nobel Prize, something you can read before the weekend ends, something with serious existential, historical, and cultural HEFT, but also relatively easy reading, here ya go. I once taught this in a college-level lit class and several students said it was the best book they'd ever read. Easily in the top ten for me. When people talk about "perfect" novels, an idea I totally glower at, I think of this as an example . . . gets better and better with rereading, too. Bird is not a very good dude for 99% of the novel, but that's the point for the other 1%. Maybe what's wrong with American Letters today is that not enough people have read this late-20th century Japanese masterpiece?! 

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
One of my fave books. Totally amazing literary fun. Totally underhyped. Watch "The Seven Samurai" and read this and have a damn fine high-art aesthetic experience. Please, dear friends, read this fucker and help raise Helen Dewitt to her proper status as Queen of England, even if she lives in Connecticut or wherever and was reported missing for a while two years ago. Really a can't miss, wonderfully fast, intelligent, funny novel. 

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Ninety-eight semi-dense pages read in too many sittings thanks to the World Series and recovering from rampaging down Broad Street. Definitely needs to be re-read on an airplane -- in fact, it's the perfect airplane book?! I heard about it via James Wood's mention of Hrabal among Bernhard, Sebald, and Bolano in a recent New Yorker article about Saramago. And I was like who's this Hrabal dude? The prose is playful, something to read slowly and savor: ". . . When I read, I don't really read: I pop a beautiful sentence in my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through veins to the root of each blood vessel." Reminded me of Nabokov's "Pnin" crossed with "A Confederacy of Dunces" infused with David Markson's high-art/philosophical quotation style. Funny throughout without a real outloud laugh: "If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself." And this one points to intellectual endurance in the face of oppression and the consolations and sorrows of philosophy -- expressed via another learned loveable loser of literature . . . but mainly, if that perfect sort of Eastern European prose style turns you on, where every sentence runneth over with intelligence, humor, and emotion, this one's worth a read. Plus, everyone loves a great short book. 

Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
". . . permanent withdrawal to that unimprinted level where all sound is silken and nothing erodes in the mad weather of language." Presages Cobain, or more so Yorke's "how to disappear completely". Fantastic sentences. Chicks don't dig it because it's ultra a-emotional, but dudes dig it for the cool response in the face of very good reasons for paranoia re: the system. Worth it if you've read Underworld and Libra, but probably not so hot if you haven't and therefore don't recognize nascent expressions of Donny D.'s later awesomeness. 

Wide-Eyed by Trinnie Dalton
The most semi-awesome, original, consistently voiced, imaginative, post-psychedelic, bric-a-brac-addled story collection staring Marc Bolan and Lou Reed ever written. Ideal chick lit for the literate neo-hippie! 

On Being Blue by William H. Gass
The greezy, breezy, oil-painted response to Sontag's call for an erotics of hermeneutics? All about the sexy synesthesia of sentences, almost always expressed alliteratively and more than fine with frequent rhyme. Everything you ever wanted to know about the phrase "fuck a duck"! 91 pages of orange-peeling prose, albeit it "blue" . . . 

Correction by Thomas Bernhard
This is the novel Ben Marcus referred to in his contra-JFranz defense of difficulty in that Harper's essay. He says that according to a little function that used to be on, to read and comprehend Thomas Bernhard's "Correction" requires 355 years of education. Like all Bernhard, it's never really difficult reading -- it's more about endurance, this one more than any of the others because it's three or four times longer than any of the others. This one includes for example at least ten pages of repetitive ranting about how Austrians only excel in one thing, out of everything they could possibly excel at, the only thing they excel at is suicide. It goes on and on about how good Austrians are at suicide -- if this is your idea of a good time, if paragraphless rants that after about half a page become pretty hilarious before going on and on, saying the same thing in different ways, musically, wonderfully, over and over, if this is the sort of thing that turns you on, you have found a must read. This book also emphasizes a giant cone in the middle of a forest. 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Enough people had looked at me aghast whenever I admitted I hadn't read this book, so I read this book, and am glad I did. Around page 150 I kept saying "withholding, withholding," a little frustrated with it, but then everything withheld was released in a 50-page swoosh that perfectly corresponded with my readerly caffeination -- thereafter I was in it to win it. It's essentially a literary thriller, with generous descriptions of atmosphere (the "picturesque"), enough classical Greek tragedy stuff to give it some thematic depth, and definitely a few very memorable characters. The last 150 pages or so were sort of weak for me, especially as things focused on the least well-characterized character -- someone who seemed to me like not much more than a proper noun. Also, the inevitable dissolution was a bit much and seemed sort of blunted except for a few "sensational" pages. Overall, though, it's a damn fine "beach read," unputdownable, even if I read it mostly in bed under the covers, often between world series innings with the TV on mute. 

A Sport & A Pasttime by James Salter
I finished this and the aubible sound my mouth made was "wow." I trust that unconscious audible reaction, and am amazed when I hear it, how pure it is, all that's needed for an honest review. Fantastic sentences. France. Like "On the Road," complete with a male writer's man crush on a mythic Dean, but by proper Yale grad/GI instead of Beat athlete. A page of dated rascism makes it a period piece, as do some classist/sexist passages, but the luscious, lascivious, lovingly rendered descriptions of anal action are timeless. The best high-brow erotic writing ever. Not the sort that gets you hot: more so, internal organs drop a foot till intestines and other necessary stuff mingle with the loins' dark twists. It's not all naughtiness: the sky is described as a ruined palazzo. Makes you wonder if Updike stole "a ruined wedding cake" from Salter to describe the Colisseum or if Salter stole it from him. 

I Am Not Jackson Pollock by John Haskell
Very individuated and often funny essayistic fiction (often about movies) in the tradition of Kafka and Barthleme's essayistic fiction. If you dislike this book, and this sort of writing, please continue reading cookie-cutter prose, predictable design, intermittent poignancy, and subtly observed yet obvious epiphany about the nature of relationships. In this book, there are monkeys in space, hysterical elephants, Jackson Pollock, and others, all accompanied with illustrations! A perfect beach read for those who never go to the beach. Huzzah! 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I think I was more awed/amazed by W&P, maybe because I read it first? No need to really talk about the book's greatness, or the lingering images, evolving, fully evoked characters, consistent themes. Greatness is a given, form and content-wise. The point-of-view is so bad-assedly steady it can even smoothly present the interior monolgue (ie, thoughts) of a dog out hunting snipe. As with W&P, commonplace stretches give way to scenes so alive you're reminded why you read -- that is, you co-create/imagine worlds in ways that are only really possible with really good prose. Something to think about is how important societal pressures were for fiction in terms of putting pressure on characters and charging all interactions with importance. What pressure-cooking dramatic constraints exist now? Part of what's amazing about this book is that it couldn't be written today, right? Even if Anna K. thought she were a man and wanted to have hot tranny action with Vronsky, she'd divorce her husband, get the sex change, and move to the appropriate section of a major city: no problem. So what are comparable societal constraints now? That is, in the good old contemporary USA (the story still sadly applies in lots of countries). For most westerners, other than traditional legal constraints (against murder, etc), nothing comparable exists. The only thing I can think of is the violation of the rules of some cruel subculture (which Russian aristrocracy certainly was). But how could you write about a society of extreme fashionistas without Zoolandering it? Almost every American situation I can think of involving orthodox Trekkies or Red Sox Nation citizenry would pretty much require ironic representation since the situations could pretty much always be resolved by simply relinquishing membership and/or running/hiding. Anna had choices, too, I guess. Hmm. Maybe Brokeback Mountain was sort of a modern retelling? Or maybe I can find some intelligent talk about all this at some online archive of Oprah's book club? 

Whatever by Michel Houellebecq
The British translator or publisher should be beheaded for calling this book "Whatever" when its French title is something amazing like "Extension of the Domain of the Struggle" -- if we otherwise lived in a total utopia, I'd say restoring the English translation's title to something closer to the original would be a major issue in this year's elections. This one seemed at first like it was written by someone other than the masterful dude who did "The Elementary Particles" and "The Possibility of an Island". I blamed the translator at first, then Houellebecq's youth, and considered it in the 2/3-star range: intemittently clever but otherwise "eh". But then the narrator goes to a club for young singles and things take off - steam gathers, themes condense, the prose pushes ahead and doesn't just muse about the connection between moving furniture (especially beds) and suicide. What's cool too is that many of the themes are the same ones he develops in later books, but here he's a little more flatly vulgar or theoretical, his tone/style shifts (occasionally exuberantly purple and then also a bit more spare/poetic at times too, more regionally French). But then things really rise and end well in the 3/4-star range (nails the landing). Definitely worth reading, and maybe even re-reading, considering it's 154 not-so-dense pages. Anyway, whatever: I'd like to petition for a new translation by Gavin Bowd or Frank Wynne, someone who'd respect the original title and maybe debritishify things a bit. 

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
I rarely read books about young girls (especially after reading a few too many YA-ish manuscripts at ye olde graduate school and elsewhere). This short novel was therefore a soft shock to my system -- my revulsion alarms were on, but never went off. In fact, every few pages burst with vivid images, fresh sentences, or what they call "poignancy". I actually felt my heartstrings pulled (I apparently have them!). I liked the parts in Paris when the narrator is older, eating Divorce cookies, more than the rest of the book, really, and thought maybe the structure was a little too strictly then and now -- maybe it could have used a third texture to deepen the two main sections? But as far as being about how a quirky, insightful, believable woman learned to blush, this is the best I've read. Enjoyable, real-seeming/organic (as opposed to mechanistic, false), warm, amusing throughout (with maybe three hearty LOLs or other audible responses), and definitely a few pages dogearred for reference when I need to find a quick example of what good writing looks like. (Caveat emptor: there's a scene at a concert that will disappoint fans of Joe Walsh who read this book solely for a fictional account of The James Gang in the early '70s . . . It doesn't even mention "Funk #49") 

Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello
This was put out by Ecco Press -- formerly of Hopewell, NJ -- before DFW's first book came out: early nineties. He and Mark Costello do a sort of Run and DMC, Abstract and Q-Tip, passing of the essayistically flowing mic, and you can bet who's mos def. I read this in 1997 and still remember the part where they dress as rappers more or less to try to infiltrate the hip hop scene of boston's rough neighborhoods, and everyone thinks they're narcs so no one talks to them until they return dressed uber-nerdy, like scientists from Harvard more or less -- like they've got to exaggerate their roles. DFW makes a good point that all this rhyme writing, even if it doesn't pay off in terms of XXL gold, might eventually help land the rhymist a copywriting job or something like that one day . . . he comes down hard on the side of hip hop lyrics as legitimate poetry compared to preciousnesses read by twelve academics of paste. Absolutely worth a read. Find it online, mos def. (Screw this 1990 review.) 

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
So fucking funny, he wrote, sitting in the wingchair . . . If you read the overview of this book, you'll see all these newspaper reviews that project exactly the sort of snotty literary attitude the writer-narrator of "Woodcutters," sitting in the wing chair, would absolutely loathe. Also, how is it possible that the overview does not even mention the book's abounding humor. This is not comedy, but if "funny" is defined by times per book you hear yourself laugh, snort, or chortle, it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. 

The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
The very best Valentine's reading for bitter literary aesthetes . . . The line breaks and Keats quotes are sort of diaphanous but steady enough to support clear impressions, images, ideas. Seems real (a requirement?). More so: it feels lived. Or a better word: experienced. A sense of wisdom always wins. I'll probably read this one a few more times and all the others (I hope they're even better) before the year is up. 

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With DH Lawrence by Geoff Dyer
Such a wonderful book. One of the central pillars of the genre of books about trying and failing to write an essay -- for example also see Thomas Bernhard's "Concrete," I think, and Nicholson Baker's "U & I" 

Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kis
One of my faves. I've read it maybe four times, once aloud while the passenger driving from NYC to Iowa. Books on tape, not on tape . . . easily the finest semi-erotic epileptic fit ever. 

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald
Gesturing toward an unspoken center of atrocity, via herring and water wells that look like smokestacks thanks to a receded seashore . . . 

Libra by Don DeLillo
This one took about a month to read so I should respect that time turning its pages and write a few commemorative words. All I can really say is that on every page the writing reeks of literature, but rarely is it literary. What I mean is that DeLillo's sentences always seem to have an eye on a subtextual prize, that is, they always seem like an updated, abstract response to that question posed long ago by some cavedweller about the meaning of life, as opposed to turns of phrase for the sake of well-crafted whateverness. Any given paragraph is obviously DeLillo. His style is absolutely particularly his, but also it's readable and clear, with lyrical potential, too, but never romantic, or sensory solely for the sake of activating the reader's senses. All characters are part of the whole (society, history, the universe), and all characters have been brought to life solely to speak DeLillo's words. This would annoy if DeLillo had nothing to say, but he has some serious things to say, and so his characters say them, then conspire to kill the president. A particular brand of American anxiety is represented here. This is a difficult review to write. What I should just say is that several times while reading this while walking to work I would laugh out loud at awesome language or a turn or development or insight (rarely at something funny, though humor exists if not necessarily abounds) and sometimes I'd even say out loud that this dude is a freakin' great writer. I should be better able to articulate why I'd say this aloud while walking/reading, but I think it has to do with his authority, ambition, dry-eyed humanity, intelligence/wisdom, scope/range, humor, boldness, the beautifully honed/hefty sentences of course, and also something to do with the structure, how scenes emerge and dissolve (boldly) without much helpful orientation from the author, and it all seems held together loosely, artfully, in a way that seems like it wants to very carefully, very gently create in the reader a state similar to what's being experienced by the characters? Something like that? It's real good. Maybe his masterpiece, even more so than "Underworld"? -- it definitely feels longer (maybe 'cause it's denser?) and goes slower than "Underworld" . . . Also, plot-wise, the whole time you know how this one ends, but such knowledge is hardly an annoyance, the opposite in fact, same as with re-reading Hamlet etc. 

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Suprised how good this is, re-reading it for the first time since high school. Al's prose moves and creates space and evokes les senses, not to mention conveys a bunch of serious metaphysical mairde. Games in the surf. The sides of smoothly curving boobies. An extraordinary moment of violence. Sexy. Sad. And on the surface, not even close to off-puttingly smart. 

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq
Damn! I've had this for years, only read it recently, wished I'd read it long ago. Totally brilliant. Purposefully vicious and perverted to make philosophical points about the unhappy state of humanity. Juxtaposition of many sagging labias and licked cocks (which sadly might turn idiots off) with mucho genetics-related philosophizing (which sadly might turn idiots off). A book about the achievement of utopia, sort of like Huxley's BNW and Island, which the book deals with. Another uber-pessimistic/vile book born of idealism/hope, as with Thomas Bernhard. An entirely compassionate work of art, in its way, in that it's about ending human suffering and moving beyond desire and death. The succession of science over religion. Big themes. High art. Mostly exposition with suggestions of scenes, few conventionally dramatized via dialogue. Consistently gnarly/rad sentences make it flowing and imaginable and wholly enjoyable. Whole paragraphs (eg, about humanity's historically unprecedented concern with aging and the preferability of suicide to loss of physical function) I read outloud to a friend. At a bar, had another friend read a hilarious destruction of Brazil's allure when someone nearby ranted about Brazil's awesomeness. Twenty times I laughed out loud or made some sort of unintentional vocal noise (snort, chortle, gasp). An exciting book that makes me wanna write while I read everything this dude's done and does forevermore hereafter 

Things That Fall From the Sky by Kevin Brockmeier

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

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