A roundup of things consumed by our editors.
Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon was my company when I waited in line at the DMV in Herald Square for two hours yesterday, trying to get my drivers license for the first time in New York. Even though I’d had a DL in another state for ten years, since I didn’t renew, I’m a new driver in the eyes of Governor Cuomo. That means I get to go through the entire process I went through when I was sixteen all over again.
Beattie’s book made the entire event much more tolerable. I still didn’t end up getting my license, but I guess that just means I get to read another book as I wait for some angry asshole to tell me that I’m missing a sample of blood that’s necessary to be given the privilege to drive.
I also began my project of reading several books by an author in one month, by reading Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’d decided to start there because, frankly, I’d already read the book twice, but I figured that I may as well get it out of the way if I want to stay true to the formula. Today I’ll be starting on Other Voices, Other Rooms, and then maybe his short stories?
Being a critic in 2011, your process is often exposed: whereas writers once used to rat everyone out, today our damnable tools sell us messengers up the river. LastFM, Spotify, message boards, that old battleship Twitter, and a bunch of other junk I’m not cool enough to tell you about reveals what we’re up to before we’re up to it.
It’s a cursed trick trying to keep you, True Believer, from knowing what we’re working on. So suffice it to say that this week I read roughly equal portions of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding for reviews on the horizon. It’s blockbuster season in the literary world! Visions of tweedy sport coats and cheese cubes on toothpicks dance in our heads. In every book store in our fair borough, the shop’s jack-or-jill-of-all-trades gopher is pulling an old podium out from the storage closet, where it’s being gnawed upon by a literal gopher. Once Blue Nights arrives in two weeks, we’ll be able to do Entertainment Tonight style countdowns of who topped the box office.
What is so not 2011 is the death-by-falling-skies of the publishing industry. Just ask Moneymakers scribe Ben Tarnoff, America’s new voice of reason: which is to say, its voice of history. In “The Worst Business in the World” at General Assembly, he explains why everything will turn out fine: because everything will change, just like it always has. If Napoleon and George Washington were proto-Book of the Month club traveling salesman, it gives hope to all the baristas with half-finished novels and plans for world domination.
Lots of reading opportunity this weekend, my babies. It’s a bye week, which means we’re going to the Avan Lava show, LARPing Winona and Gere, and enjoying the foliage. Because we’re getting old, and old is cool. See you in the stacks, fellow worms!
I spent last weekend in Beacon, New York; I watched two good friends of mine get married, visited the excellent and striking Dia:Beacon, ate tasty ice cream, and made a stop at the Captain Lawrence brewery. Not surprisingly, I also did some reading. Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana is a solid collection of crime fiction set largely in…well, you can probably figure it out. Some have an interconnected quality: a few connect, following families or the aftereffects of crimes, while in other cases, protagonists show up in background roles, in one case meeting a horrific fate. It’s a solid debut, though a few of Bill’s metaphors stumble in an attempt to compress a number of precise details.
The Condemned served as my first introduction to Noah Cicero’s work, which is brutal and searing in places, sometimes strikingly or painfully honest, and deeply readable. (It left me with the inclination to read more from Stewart Home, for some reason.) And I also read the copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I’d picked up while in New Orleans last month. Dear lord, the precision; it’s the sort of novel in which the revelation of certain details and the means of telling the story need to be done in a very specific way for things to work, and — this is probably not news to anyone who’s already read it — that’s absolutely the case here.
After returning to Brooklyn, I revisited Down and Out in Paris and London for one of the book groups I’m in. It remains an odd book to me — a terse account of being impoverished in two cities in the early 1930s welded to sociological notes that don’t entirely fit with its billing as a novel. And while a few parts of it haven’t aged all that well, most of Orwell’s observations remain prescient; his observations on class consciousness led to many a discussion of how that relates to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
After that came Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. It’s gotten inside my head more than I’d expected; what seems at first to be a straightforward account of a man not entirely capable of coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt and remorse evolves over time into something decidedly weirder. It’s not clear to me as yet whether Johnson intends the novel’s more surreal elements to be taken literally or as signs of his main character’s growing separation from the rest of the world. On the one hand, there are elements to this book as concrete as one can get; on the other, you have dreamlike scenes and strange visions of the past. It’s a short novel, but it’s likely to prompt conversations for months to come, long after longer works have fallen by the wayside.
Presently, I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanasai for another book group; so far, I’m enjoying it considerably, and am also impressed with how different it is from his earlier novel Paris Trance.