A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
First, everyone needs to read The Vet’s Daughter so I can talk to them about it. Second, I am really appreciating the New York Review of Books these days. Their blog series on democracy, especially their most recent piece on Israel, and the Elaine Blair piece on American male novelists and their loser narcissist protagonists are giving me what I crave from that publication, i.e. provocative thoughts and long-ass articles.
Last, but not least, I have gotten back into WTF with Marc Maron after a drought where I couldn’t listen to it. Not because of Marc (I love him), not because of the guests (they’re fine), but because I overdosed (which I think Marc would understand). I was averaging three, maybe four a week for six months. I needed a break. Also, more importantly, I had run out of episodes. I rebounded oN Monday with the Mindy Kaling episode, which was awesome, and then I moved onto the Paul Feig episode, which firmly put me back in the ring with the insecurities and dreams of America’s show business class. Both episodes come highly recommended. I want to be Mindy Kaling’s friend. Can that happen?
Among the copious number of books mentioned in Jo Walton’s Among Others was Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which I’d intended to read since NYRB Classics reissued it a few months ago. (A glowing blurb from Emma Donoghue didn’t hurt.) This week, I got around to it; it’s a strange and beguiling book, drawing together three parallel stories set hundreds of years from one another, each of which centers around a mentally unstable young man undergoing some sort of personal turmoil. It’s surreal without ever heading into full-on supernatural territory (I think), and for all of its structural bravado, it’s the moments of raw emotion that sear the most.
Michael T. Fournier’s Hidden Wheel also leaps around in time; its conceit is that it’s a reconstruction of the music and art scenes of a small city in the early part of the 21st century, made by archivists working hundreds of years later. (One of the artists in the town has become a major historical figure in the years after the novel’s action.) Fournier, who’s also written about the Minutemen, knows his punk rock, and much of the book rings true, from the interplay of art and commerce to the strange legacy of a trailblazing hardcore band who abandoned the form for lives of Buddhist devotion. His true aim, though, is to explore how we interact with media: the obsession of one character with vinyl; the fondness of another artist for abandoned CD cases, which he uses as canvases. And the framing sequence allows Fournier to take some of the current analog/digital debates to a logical end.
On the recommendation of a pair of smart readers, I picked up and enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award. The former boasts historical sweep and a steady progression of surreal moments; I found it utterly beguiling. The latter has bitter humor in abundance, as it targets everything from intellectuals to, well, the early-80s versions of Internet trolls (and doesn’t always leave its narrator immune from criticism.) Framed as said narrator critiquing a biography of her sister as a hurricane rages, it’s neatly structured, and counterbalances its humor with a few moments of genuine emotional horror.
And I continued progressing through the works of Evelyn Waugh with Vile Bodies, which was wry and sometimes hilarious and sometimes lead to an uneasy feeling; it was much as I’d expected. (Waugh’s Scoop still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but it’s pleasant to read a novel of his that doesn’t have racism as an essential part of its plotline.) And today, I’m in the midst of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and will soon be moving on to Hari Kunzru’s much-lauded Gods Without Men. Thoughts on both — as well as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s noir/horror hybrid Fatale — should come next week.
After reading about Nathanael West last week, I read his achingly phenomenal Miss Lonelyhearts. The book is violently beautiful; it wounds my soul. We say this all the time, but the book feels timeless, both in the sense of eternal relevance, but also in the sense that it feels like he could have written it yesterday. “Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dream were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.” Or, “He read it for the same reason that an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain.” He hurts my heart. For short stories, I had the privilege to read the upcoming translation of Etgar Keret’s latest collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door. First impressions: Keret, at least at the time he wrote these stories seems happy, which is a shock to me, but a lovely shock.
In the realm of non-fiction, I’ve recently become obsessed with all things Bertrand Russell. I think he deserves a lot more attention than we generally give him (also, so many of his books are free on the Kindle program for my computer…) And I’m pretty sure his essay Free Man’s Worship prefigures David Foster Wallace’s equally brilliant commencement speech. Russell writes sentences like this: “Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues.” In literary criticism, I found on one of those street vendor tables, an old book of essays from Virginia Woolf entitled Granite and Rainbow. In it she writes on the art of fiction and the art of biography. It disturbs me how good she was at any genre of writing. This next piece might serve as a rationalization for my strange obsession with the direction of Will Ferrell’s career, but Andrew O’Heir’s pick of the week column at Salon, in which he chooses Casa de Mi Padre, prompts him to write a great piece on the conceptual genius of Ferrell’s choices. Finally, onto music, I’ve finally caught up with the enchanting music of Sharon Van Etten and I saw the young jazz phenom, Shauli Einav, play with jazz legends at the Kitano.
Read S.L. Price’s Vanity Fair piece on Barry Levinson’s 1982 comedy, Diner, and realized the film has been on my list for far too long. After watching it, I looked at the chart of films and television shows that Diner is said to have influenced–from Dazed and Confused to Pulp Fiction–then muttered a “holy shit” to myself.
Started putting together my questions for our event with Adam Levin on March 4th. Something about the stories in Hot Pink made me want to go revisit some George Saunders, so I picked Civilwarland In Bad Decline off my shelf, and then realized that for all the DFW comparisons I’ve heard since The Instructions came out, Levin seems more indebted to Saunders with this collection than the late Wallace. Also: Any opportunity to read Saunders is a blessing.
In tribute to Venus Drive, I’ll use fewer words than usual. Sam Lipsyte is a lumberjack who can knock you down with a punch that starts from two inches away. He’s quick at putting a story’s dramatic, resonant moments deep into our gullets, as if we’ve all long known these sequestered, hidden truths to be self-evident. It is prose that trusts us to keep secrets. There is in each of Lipsyte’s tales (call him Lip to save time) a motion toward sex as the operative, short and long term. For these oft desperate characters, getting off is at times a red herring, at others their downfall, crutch, or hubris. At others still its just what the doctor ordered. In each story the past haunts, beckons, and illuminates. These are characters who at once are full of regret yet continue to press on – who figuratively and literally drive onward.
It’s also, not for nothing, a pleasure to read a relatively new writer with true rhythm: one who can keep a beat rather than stomping one out, letting sentences draw out and fade. Nearly every word newly enriches the moment: we are locked into time and place in these stories. In short, as my Algebra teacher used to say: nice beat, I can dance to it.