Yup, I Read Now

Booking Through Thursday

btt2“If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question…who would you ask and what would that question be?”

You’d think that you’d be able to come up with an answer to this question immediately but that just isn’t the case, is it? I’ve had the opportunity to attend several book readings where authors I adore were standing only a few feet away from me and each time my brain seemed to stop functioning. A couple of weeks ago I was standing beside Nick Hornby and just couldn’t remember how to construct sentences. He actually had to ask me if I wanted to take a picture with him. “C’mon, Amber,” he said. “I’m not here that often.” So this question presupposes that, when face to face with my favorite author, I’d be able to speak, which is unlikely, but I’ll just try and go with it.

I think I’d ask Douglas Adams to write a sentence for me.

A sentence written by the man who said that the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is “42,” is bound to be both poignant, pithy, peculiar, and priceless.


The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme
October 21, 2009, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Reviews and Final Opinions | Tags: ,

51MSYMSE4WLThe Dead Father is dead. I killed it. I don’t know how I did it, but I did, it’s done, I read Barthelme and won (<—unintentional rhyme). In The Dead Father—the most complicated book that I’ve read in the past two months, quite possibly the most complicated that I’ve read since becoming literate—a group of people drag the immense, somewhat dead, somewhat living body of a man known as the Dead Father across the countryside.

D.F. is a pitiful figure despite his apparent size—I don’t think any concrete measurements are ever given but we’re led to believe he’s rather huge, though not too huge—and is often berated by members of his travelling party. Why are they doing this, you ask. Well, it’s all very mystical and, at the same time, not mystical at all. Confusing? Yup! And then you get paragraphs that start like this:

The Dead Father was slaying in a grove of music and musicians. First he slew a harpist and then a performer upon the serpent and also a banger upon the rattle and also a blower of the Persian trumpet and one upon the Indian trumpet and one upon the Hebrew trumpet and one upon the Roman trumpet and one upon the Chinese trumpet of copper-covered wood.

I should have hated this book. But I didn’t. Though, the narrative is untraditional, to say the least—it’s digressive, surreal, and confusing, confusing, confusing—I loved The Dead Father and was actually moved by it. I think, in order to read and enjoy it, you have to be open to what Barthelme’s done and try to look at the book as an experience—an experience that’s going to be pretty rough and uncomfortable for a while.

Heroes and Villains, The Dead Father, And Another Thing…, Angle of Yaw

the noobs (Red version)This is probably the most diverse group of books that I’ve ever purchased in the space of a week—Angle of Yaw by Ben Lerner is a book of prose poems nominated for the National Book Award a couple of years back; And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer is sci-fi/humor; Heroes and Villains by David Hajdu is a collection of pop-culture essays; and The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme is surrealist fiction of the highest order. I’ve already started the Barthelme and I’m struggling. I chose to read it first because I thought I would move through it quickly since it’s less than 200 pages. But it’s so off the wall and different from anything that I’ve ever read (including the one short story of Barthelme’s that I read for class two years ago) that it takes me forever to finish a single page. In Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt, Nick Hornby says that if a book is no fun, then you should abandon it and find something better. The strange thing about The Dead Father is that it’s an incredibly difficult read but for some reason I really enjoy it. The book is sort of cool and has phrases in it like, “he took out his ancient prick.” I’d like to finish up with it, though, because I’m eager to dive into Lerner’s prose poems. He did a reading at my school and just blew me away with how intelligent he was. His prose poems are funny, insightful, and periodically about old-school video games. I suppose I could try to read both books at the same time but that would probably just make the going even slower.

noew books oct 18

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

6a00e5535ff83b883301156e35f683970c-320wiWhat I enjoy most about David Foster Wallace’s work isn’t the idiosyncratic intellect—the cleverness of the stuff—although, for me, that’s what initially made him such an attractive writer. I remember reading “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and thinking here’s a guy who knows what’s up, who understands all of the weirdness floating around in my skull, who can articulate it perfectly, comically. He did things structurally that I didn’t know you were allowed to do in short fiction and that opened up a whole world of possibilities for me. I was invigorated. I wanted to read more David Foster Wallace. I wanted to read writers who were like David Foster Wallace. I wanted to write like David Foster Wallace, have other people read what I’d written and say, “Wow, here’s a girl who really knows what’s up.”

After news of his suicide broke, I couldn’t look at his work in terms of how cool and inventive it was anymore, at least not solely in those terms. It was like a coming of age moment for me, the event that sparks a change in our protagonist’s perception of the world around her. Innocence null and void.

It was impossible for me to separate him from his writing. I was reading his fiction as if it were autobiography. Every character—female or male, named or unnamed—was David Foster Wallace to me and I couldn’t help but see hints of his tragic fate; “The Depressed Person,” which is about suicide, seemed like heavy-handed foreshadowing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experienced something like this, though, I haven’t discussed it with anyone—I wasn’t purposely looking for clues of his depression in his writing but still there’s something perverse about the act, something shameful about it.

Then I read this article about him in Rollingstone, an article that I was compelled to save. It was ostensibly a portrait of a man with a mental illness, describing his depression, anxiety, and years long struggle to find a prescription medication that worked for him. But it also provided me with some insight into the real David Foster Wallace— what those closest to him knew to be true—not the version of him that I had pieced together by reading his stories.

David Foster Wallace was decent and kind, adored by his friends, family, and students. And he, in turn, adored all of them. After reading the article I wished that I had been in one of his creative writing classes, not because he was this celebrated, ultra-brilliant talent, but because he seemed like he was a good person. So this article, yet again, changed the way I viewed David Foster Wallace’s work. Now it’s impossible for me to ignore the sensitivity of it and that’s what I enjoy most.

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life is a teeny pocket-sized hardcover, each page contains no more than four or five sentences, and it costs way more than it probably should ($14.99). It begins with the following brief publisher’s preamble:

David Foster Wallace was invited to speak to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College on a subject of his choosing. It was the only such address he ever made.

If Little, Brown were being one hundred percent honest with us, the last sentence would probably read:

It was the only such address he ever made, he’s dead now, which means this is a collector’s item, so Canadians fork over seventeen of your Canadian dollars.

It may seem like I’m bitching (because I am) but really the price of the book (and the implicit exploitation of true tragedy) is its solitary defect.

I graduated from college in 2005 and wish that I would have heard this speech at my commencement. (Instead I had to listen to John McCain surreptitiously lay out his political platform.) This is Water is essentially a simple, humorous, effective argument against solipsism. When my best friend graduated from the University of Chicago a couple of years ago, her commencement speaker more or less told them that their degrees made them better than everyone else, that their education had prepared them for life. The best part about this teeny, tiny book is that it’s saying the exact opposite. It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. We have no way of knowing how this life thing will play out and I don’t know if this is a horrible thought but the fact that David Foster Wallace committed suicide may mark this commencement speech as one of the few that wasn’t complete BS.

This is a book that you should read and then pass on to a friend not only because it’s great but because no one will ever have to pay $14.99 or $16.99 (Canadian) for it again.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

wardancesSherman Alexie’s classic short story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” makes you feel as though someone has Kung-Fu gripped your heart, just really squeezed the hell out of the thing. In the immortal words of John Mellencamp during his prolific “John Cougar” phase, Alexie’s writing hurts so good. War Dances, Alexie’s latest collection of short fiction, poetry, autobiography, and genre defying acrobatics, is no exception.

In “On Airplanes” one of War Dances longer poems, the speaker complains about couples who ask him to give up his aisle seat for a middle seat, so that they can sit together. “How dare you/Ask me to change/My life for you/How imperial/How colonial.” But then something peculiar happens. The comedy gives way to an entirely different sort of experience. “But, ah, here is/The strange truth/Whenever I’m asked/ To trade seats/For somebody else’s love/I do, I always do.” There’s a twist at the end, a unexpected shift in tone that undercuts (or perhaps underscores) everything that has preceded it. That last stanza, for me, as sweet as it is, is like a sucker punch to the gut. Reading Alexie is like having someone caress you with one hand and wail on you with the other.

Alexie is the preeminent American Indian writer—quite possibly the world’s most famous living Indian—and as cool and grand as all of that sounds, it short-changes him; those sorts of qualifiers are unnecessary for genius of this order. Though his heritage has obviously shaped his world-view and politics, though his protagonists are primarily Indians, his talent is ferocious and his themes are universal.

And boy does Alexie loves his themes.

Whether it’s a cute but poignant poem about building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star with his sons or a somber short story about a Republican senator’s son who places his father’s political career in jeopardy by committing a hate crime, the pieces in War Dances are primarily about four things: fatherhood, the responsibility we have to our parents, disillusionment, and memory. So this would be my only criticism of the book: I understand the need for a thematically cohesive collection but for any Alexie fan this is well-worn territory. It would be intriguing, if nothing else, to see him tackle a few new themes. Notwithstanding this, War Dances is utterly readable (I finished it in just a couple of hours) and several of the stories are actually too funny. While I can waste hours watching trashy basic cable reality shows with the best of them, this is the kind of book that makes happy to be literate.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

130194Bertie Wooster, narrator and oddly loveable upper-class twit, is deliciously idle and pals around with other hoighty-toighty wealthy folk who privilege decorum to such an outrageous extent that they inevitably wind up in the goofiest, most trifling predicaments. It’s up to intuitive, imperturbable Jeeves, Bertie’s valet (or “manservant” if you want to be creepy about it) to sort them all out.

On the face of it, The Code of the Woosters is 286 pages of unbridled hullabaloo (the bulk of the conflict revolves around a cow-creamer that several of the older, haughtier players of this farce covet for indiscernible yet clearly trivial reasons). But dismissing the book as insignificant fluff is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Oh, so dreadfully wrong. P.G. Wodehouse’s intentions may not have been as lofty as those of some of the writers that we so nerdily dub “literary,” but there is still something special about this book, something special about Wodehouse. I’ve always felt that it is far more difficult to tickle the funny bone than tug at the heartstrings (though I will waffle a bit here and say that it takes a considerable amount of talent to do either effectively). Page for page, I don’t believe that I’ve ever read a book quite as quippy as The Code of the Woosters; it’s just brimming with wit. And while every gag may not be a howler, there’s no denying Wodehouse’s comedic artistry.

The humor is thoroughly British—often very reserved and satirical but also very, very silly. The dialogue has this enjoyable rapid-fire quality, and even though I, of course, believe that literature has its own inherent worth and books are perfectly fine in their God-given form, The Code of the Woosters just lends itself to cinematic/theatrical adaptation (I’m currently watching the third season of Jeeves and Wooster on DVD).

And the language, ah, the language! There is a terrific rhythm to Bertie’s narration and the diction, well, I suppose it’s 1930s English slang, and I loved it. Some of the Bertie words and phrases that I marked include:

“Five hundred’s pretty good sugar, if you ask me.”

“But that’s just what I’m driving at. That’s just where you’re making your bloomer.”

“The gravity of the situash had at last impressed itself upon her. She uttered a squeak of dismay, and her eyes became a bit soup-platey.”

“He opened the small suitcase, and I lit a cigarette and proceeded to stress the moral lesson to be learned from all this rannygazoo.”

On the front cover of my edition, there is a quote that reads:

“Wodehouse is the funniest writer—that is, the most resourceful and unflagging deliverer of fun—that the human race a glum crowd, has yet produced.”

Another critic says:

“He who has not met Wodehouse has not lived a full life.”

There is a heap of praise that I would like to heave onto the pile—The Code of the Woosters is a fantastic bit of social commentary, the characters are exquisitely rendered, etc.—but I don’t think that I would be able to articulate it any better than this, so I’m going to stop right here. What I will say is that I’m glad to have finally read a little Wodehouse.

(for anyone who cares, here is a great interview Wodehouse did for the Paris Review, published in 1975)

October 14, 2009, 4:32 pm
Filed under: Book Adventures | Tags: , , ,

adventures (red version)Rainy days are bookstore days and so, after a quick stop at Le Wal-Mart to pick up sacks of Peanut M&Ms for my Oct 31. 24-hour Peanut M&M-Binge-O-Rama, that’s exactly where I was yesterday afternoon. The Young Adult Fiction of this particular chain bookstore is a kind of showpiece for the place; it’s right in the middle of everything, no doubt owing to the recent teen vampire craze. Now, I have no beef with the Twilight series or Stephenie Meyer but I will never read any of these books. Morals or principles or standards don’t factor into it. Reading a Stephenie Meyer book is just one of those things that I don’t ever see myself doing, just as I don’t ever see myself running the Boston Marathon or eating a praying mantis. I did see the Twilight film and was mainly unimpressed, but still, I have nothing but the most out-and-out sort of ambivalence when it comes to the franchise. Well, perhaps I should say had nothing but the most out-and-out sort of ambivalence because I saw something yesterday at the bookstore that shook the foundation of my staunch irresoluteness.


Et tu, Austen-e?

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