A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
I read Joy Williams’ Honored Guest for the first of probably a few times this week. Some stories I loved unconditionally, others might reveal themselves to me later. You know how it is when one character jumps out at you in a story, and you immediately cast the role of that character in your mind? Perhaps other Joy Williams fans will agree, maybe not, but I think James Urbaniak (of Venture Brothers, internet, and general “oh I love that guy” fame) would be an excellent Rockford the librarian in the film or television adaptation of “Claro.” You know, the one where the convalescing couple is living abroad and their hired help may or may not be swindling them out of money? There’s a librarian in it, and James Urbaniak would kill it.
In my quest for more Joy Williams, I found an essay of hers with a choice quote about Flannery O’Connor’s mother: “I wrote to Flannery O’Connor’s mother once. I said I really liked her daughter’s stories and could I have a picture of her. Meaning her daughter, of course. She wrote back and said I sure could not.”
I’m part of the way through the big article about Tim Leiweke in this week’s New Yorker. Author Connie Bruck includes an aside about Entourage, particularly its nod to the NFL’s absence in the number two city in the country, which provoked an all too regular line of questioning: did Entourage have any value, and should I ever watch that show? After two minutes of what seemed like eternal soul-searching, I decided: maybe, and not today.
Last year, Norman Lock took part in a reading that we held in conjunction with the fine people at Big Other. Since then, I’d been meaning to read his collection Pieces for Small Orchestra, from which he had read on the night in question. To call the four stories in here dreamlike would be to state the obvious; the title work is, if not set within dreams, then certainly borrowing from them (both literally and figuratively). Another story finds the narrator, Alessandro Comi, existing in several places at once, a series of parallel lives suddenly coexisting. The multiple Comis don’t seem far removed from multiple versions of Lock himself, one of whom meets Comi in post-war Europe, another of whom seeks to vanish into The Phantom of the Opera. It’s smart, indescribable stuff, and — given the quality of the three books of his that I have read — I’m curious to delve further into his body of work soon. (I’m also going to be checking out J.A. Tyler’s review in Ploughshares in a moment.)
In tandem with my re-reading of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (short version: still one of my five favorite novels of the past five years), I also read the first part of Kevin Avery’s Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. Specifically, I’ve read the “Life” part; the second part of the book is a lengthy collection of Nelson’s writings, which I’m hoping to get to this week. It’s a fascinating and frustrating life that Avery describes, and while I would not have minded a little more detail on certain things (notably: Nelson’s friendship with Warren Zevon) Avery does a fine job of evoking a complex life.
On the recommendation of many smart folks I know, I read Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! this week. The setup is almost Quixote-esque — its narrator reads Treasure Island and decides to live her life based on several of its core principles. Hilarity of a particularly bleak sort does, in fact, ensue. That said, some of the humor in the book takes a split-second to become apparent: we’re witnessing these events from the perspective of someone wholly convinced of their own righteousness, and the gulf between her take on reality and reality itself grows as things progress. Needless to say — plug alert! — I’m curious to hear what emerges from Levine’s Q & A with Jason early next month.
About ten minutes before I set down to write my entry for this week’s Indexing, I finished Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl. I’m curious to delve back into Jen’s review of the book in question. Having recently finished The Hour of the Star, I also found Zambreno’s use of a number of quotes from Lispector’s work interesting — I’m wondering if Zambreno’s novel could be read as a contemporary riff on Lispector’s.
The fact that it’s an entry in this year’s Tournament of Books doesn’t hurt; I’m hoping to have read most of the books competing by the time March comes around, and to that end will be heading to WORD in about an hour to snag myself a copy of Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother. Now, on to the day’s reading to come: Kate Bernheimer’s Horse, Flower, Bird and Laird Hunt’s The Paris Stories.
I finished Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and sat down to coffee with the author yesterday to discuss the newest collection. I’m assuming that conversation will pop up somewhere soon enough, but since I don’t have an official review slated to go anywhere, I don’t feel uncomfortable saying that I loved Englander’s second collection of short stories. I thought that his novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was good (not great), but his debut book of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, blew me away. Personally, I think Englander excels with the short form, and shows that again with this newest book. What I love most about Englander is that, personally, as a Jewish person reading his work, I can say to myself that if I wasn’t Jewish, and wasn’t familiar with some of the subject matter he was dealing with, I would still be able to connect and enjoy his work. In this particular case, a lot was made of the title story, it’s connection to Carver’s What We Talk About when We Talk About Love, and the idea of two couples (one secular, one Haredi) sitting around, smoking pot, discussing religion and values, and eventually coming to play “the Anne Frank game.” And while I totally thought it was great it, there’s so much more, and this book seems so much more personal to Englander. (On a funny side note, we talked a little about his friendship with Aleksandar Hemon, and Englander told me that whenever he visits the Bosnian-American writer that he’s always “well fed.” I found that funny.)
I’m on a few deadlines, so my P.G. Wodehouse mission will have to wait. In the meantime, I’ve been reading The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, and finished The Code Book by Simon Singh, which I had originally started on vacation. While I’ll admit that Singh’s explanation of the science of cryptography was fascinating, I reverted back to high school aged me, thinking, “Oh my god! So many numbers!”
This was a big fiction writing week for me – and thus not a big reading week. Candidly, reading is a pleasure for me, while any accomplishment-sized bout of writing tends to at least start as a brutal extraction that requires going into a virtually empty room in my apartment, unplugging the wi-fi, and cursing a storm through gnashing teeth. There’s also frankly a feeling of wanting to be alone with one’s daydreams, without even the best writers’ styles chiming in.
But on the train and at the kitchen table during brisk power lunches pour uno, I cracked a few books. In fact I read in its entirety Peter Biskind’s tawdry gossip masterpiece Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Full disclosure: I’ve read this book cover-to- cover more than any other book outside of Goodnight Moon and At Swim-Two-Birds. It is quite simply the easiest thing in the world. It’s like putting on Bee Thousand and half-scrambling eggs directly in the pan while wearing sweatpants. That’s how easy this book is. But its ease is not for lack of excellence or craftsmanship: Biskind’s prose, while at times both overly blunt and obscenely doting, mostly lets the subjects of the book speak for themselves. They are the self-professed “New Hollywood” – those filmmakers who made some of the best and weirdest American films under a studio system from roughly 1967 to 1980. And while I worship Altman, Lucas, and their ilk less than I once did (the late 50s and early 60s were equal or superior runs for American film, and the oft-dismissed 80s were damn fun in their own right), their stories are often amazing. Dennis Hopper “blaming” himself for the entrance of cocaine into the nation’s lexicon and nostrils is worth the price of admission, as are the stories of Warren Beatty’s philandering, Francis Coppola going shirtless and batshit crazy filming Apocalypse Now, and strung out Martin Scorsese and Liza Minnelli showing up on producers’ door steps fiending for drugs. To say nothing of all the great insights into actual filmmaking! I never say this, but buy this book immediately. You need it in your home the way you should be legally required to own olive oil and tabasco.
I’m also minorly obsessed with 1963’s The Living Sea by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, purchased at that noble Brooklyn institution Book Thug Nation. Really I’m just obsessed with this one picture of a woman riding a snapping turtle. It is not this one, but it is similar. Should you ever need motivation to hunker down and get work done, look to this brave turtle for inspiration. This lovable shell-beast is our modern day “Hang In There” kitten and should be revered as such.