October Book Log

October 31, 2009

I am really starting to wonder if I’ll manage to finish my book queue. I want to have it done by Christmas, but it’s looking doubtful as I’ve got some pretty chunky reading left. That said, it is pushing me to read some things that might have remained in the “I’ll get to that eventually” pile forever.

I have, however, decided not to read the new Audrey Niffenegger. Cate and I were both a bit skeptical about it (though we loved the Time Traveler’s Wife) as it seemed Niffenegger might be a bit too pretentious given the chance. Cate checked it out from the library and only read a few pages before deciding it was not for her, I took a look myself, read the premise and decided I’d take a pass. So, counting, that I managed to get five books off the queue. As you’ll see below, I couldn’t be much more thrilled with my reading for this month.

1. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (5.0/5) – This was a book I really needed. I didn’t realize it, but I was really yearning to read about what it means to be a progressive, feminist man in today’s society. It was nice to see someone else go through some of the same struggles. I talked to Cate about this book a lot (she also read it) and while, I do think she’s right that the book has some flaws and that some of Chabon’s stories are rather un-feminist in places, there was enough here that I needed that I can’t give it anything other than a five. This book made me more comfortable with who I am. It isn’t very often I can say that about a book.

2. All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell (5.0/5) – I was totally, completely, utterly floored by these stories. I really can’t believe he isn’t more well known. What a fantastic, fantastic writer. These stories sit with Joyce and Cheever and Carver and any other great short story writer you can think of. This is not hyperbole: I have never read short stories better than these. Every one of them broke my heart at least a little bit.

3. Monsters of Templton by Lauren Groff (4.0/5) – I read this as one of my “new author” books from the queue. I hit on Groff mostly because Cate had checked a book of her short stories out from the library, really liked them, and then checked this book out. It was sitting around, so I thought I’d give it a go. Very good. There are some problems with the writing (I wanted to scream “show, don’t tell” in a few places) and though she really pulled off the proliferation of narrators (there are more than ten, if I remember correctly), that doesn’t mean they were all necessary. Anyway, though it isn’t perfect, the writing is good, and the story is very compelling. I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has.

4. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (4.5/5) – This is one of the books I’d been spending months waiting for. Aside from his very early work, I love pretty much everything Lethem has done and firmly believe The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn are masterpieces. So, obviously, following on the heels of those two books, he was going to have a hard time meeting my expectations. This book was very, very good. I loved the characters even though they all started fairly unlikable and following the weird events of Lethem’s dystopia was really interesting, but… I don’t know there was just a little something lacking. I’ve written before that, at his best, Lethem uses the strangeness of his books to augment the story, and he does that a lot here, but there are certainly places where it just feels like he’s trying to be weird and he kind of loses the plot. So, it’s not perfect, but it’s very good and a hell of a trip.

5. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (5.0/5) – Another new author for me. This one by Fred’s recommendation. I actually finished this just a few minutes ago and I was pretty well floored. I don’t know how to describe it except that it is wonderful and you spend the whole book feeling like you are breathing freely in a way you haven’t since you were much younger or maybe you’ve never breathed this freely and you only want it to go on forever, but it doesn’t and the way it ends knocks the wind out of you and maybe you cry just a little and you think, “damn, that was something.”

Fall Book Queue Update:

Robert Frost’s Poems by (ahem) Robert Frost
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Anton Chekov’s Short Stories by (double ahem) Anton Chekov
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Reivers by William Faulkner
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Machine by Joe Posnanski
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
One True Thing by Anna Qunidlen
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

An Essay (Attempt)

October 23, 2009

Now that I finally have use for them, I find I have no conventional teachers. That I notice the absence is all the fault of my teaching career. I spend every day pushing, urging, “Don’t worry about the grade, it doesn’t matter. Look. Look at this. This is important. There is something here for you. If you take it in, if you let it roll around and ruminate and take root, then it will turn into something. It may turn you into something you didn’t know you could be. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

They do not listen. They are worried about the grade. The grade. No curiosity. No questions more common than, “Is this good enough?” or “How long does it have to be?”

“No. It isn’t good enough. I want you to care and if you cared you would not ask that question because you would have let it in and it would be taking root even now and growing and you would never ask me if it was good enough,” and, “I don’t care. I don’t care how long it is. How long does it need to be? That is what I want. Can’t you look? Can’t you be honest with yourself? I will guide you. I will help you, but you must be truthful. You must be willing to urge yourself forward.”

My youth was filled with disdain for this kind of reasoning. I knew the way the young always know. I did not need guidance. And I was one of the good ones. I was curious and Smart but still, I wanted the degree. I cared too much about my GPA. What I wouldn’t give now for one of those teachers I trusted – Meyer or Adams or Johanning or Winner or Milder – to come up to me and say, “Though you wasted our time and though you do not deserve a reprieve, I will grant it to you. Here is the way. Here are these things. Read this and this and this and this. Here, is a guide to other things. It will help you find your own route. If you have questions, tell me and I will talk with you about them. I will not give you answers because the answers do not matter and your answers may be different than mine and still the right answers, but I will help. I will be a guide when I can.”

But I do not have this. I only have the ruins, the archaeological remnants, of my education. I thumb through boxes of old handouts that, thank god, I kept and I find Maxwell and Canin. I harangue my wife and friends. Cate gives me O’Brien and Quindlen and Irving. Fred gives me Petterson. Josh gives me Eugenides and Nabakov and Atwood. Jennifer gives me Saramago. Justin gives me all the history and science I want, or will, I am sure, when I am ready to ask. Even Simone, who can’t talk yet, chips in and gives me Milne. I stumble forward on my own and sometimes I find something. I find Chabon early, then later Greene and Lethem and Kaku and Strout.

I should stop for a minute and talk just about Cate. I am so thankful for Cate. She speaks the language. She is honest. She pushes. She is there all the time. She is the closest thing I have to a teacher now. The best partners are probably sometimes teachers as well. Or so I would suppose.

I do not deride my teachers. They did well by me. They gave me Roth and Anderson and Sedaris and Warren and Hannah and Emerson and many, many others. And they tried. They pushed and urged. I only wish that I had been ready for them the way I am now. That I had been ready with questions. That my mind had spent less of that time occupied with what grade I was getting.

Perhaps then, if I had been ready just a little sooner, I would not feel as I do now, that I am so miserably far behind. Perhaps my pursuit would seem less frantic and fumbling. But I could not have been ready. I would never have ever been ready, I think, if I had not become one of them – if I did not spend my days trying to show children how to think. “But maybe,” I tell myself in consolation, “it is better for the path to be less than straight. Maybe, the things I will find will be better and more interesting if I find them this way.” But that does not mean I would not welcome a guide.

Republican Assholery

October 15, 2009

I haven’t blogged about politics for a while, but, oh god, I just have to write some thing about this (sound).

Basically, Al Franken introduced a bill that, if passed, would prevent the United States from giving government contracts to companies that require their employees to sign a form saying they will not sue if they are raped by other employees. First of all, how ridiculous is it that we need a law for that in the first place? Fortunately (and, one hopes, obviously), it passed 68-30.

“Hold on,” you say, “30 senators voted against that bill?” Yes, they did, and they were all Republicans. How is it possible for such a large group of people to be such giant assholes? I mean, sure, I can imagine one or two of douchy nutjobs thinking that the low bid is more important than whether or not someone is raped. I accept that there are people in the world who are that greedy and that ridiculous. But 30? There are only 40 Republican senators right now. 3/4 of the Republicans in the Senate voted to keep doing business with companies that think rape is okay. I cannot get over this. What could even possess you to vote that way if you are a rational human being.

Think about it this way: Even if you are a crazy enough asshole to think this bill is a bad idea, how do you not realize that it is going to pass no matter how you vote and that, if you vote against it, you will get a shit ton of bad publicity? Why is this something on which you choose to make a stand?

This makes so little sense that I am forced to think that the majority of Republicans legislators (and, by association, Republicans in general) must be one of three things:

Crazy douchebags
Douchy assholes
Crazy asshole douchebags

I’m leaning toward number three, myself.

Side question to my lawyer friends: Could requiring someone to sign a “no suing if one of us rapes you” contract or whatever it’s called constitute some kind of actionable threat? Isn’t that pretty much saying, “if you work for us, you should realize that sexual assault is going to happen. And when it does, we don’t want to hear about it.”

Michael Chabon

October 7, 2009

Yesterday, Michael Chabon’s new book Manhood for Amateurs came out. I finished it at about 2:00 this afternoon. I have written sporadically about Michael Chabon as part of various posts on broader topics, but I haven’t actually written expressly about him.

Michael Chabon is my favorite living writer, and he maybe my favorite writer, period. I do not think I am alone in this feeling as he has frequently been referred to with breathless quotes about being the best, or one of the best, or among the best writers of his generation. But the approval of various literary magazines and book reviewers isn’t really the point. There are plenty of well reviewed writers who I do not particular care for. The point is that Michael Chabon is my favorite writer. Why, you ask, is he my favorite writer? I have no idea really.

Oh sure, I can talk about all the nerdly writer things that he does so well. His ridiculous vocabulary. His ability to string together absurdly long, but still wonderful sentences. His fully fleshed-out characters (I’m big on characters). But as with any art, it is pretty impossible to explain exactly what it is about his writing that really does it for me. There are lots and lots of writers that have a wonderful way with the sentence, large vocabularies, and create beautiful characters whom you fall in love with even as you see their flaws and watch them fail. So why Chabon?

The best I can do when I try to think of an answer is that Chabon and his characters often seem to occupy head space that is pretty nearly identical to my own. His characters (and, indeed, Chabon himself, if his nonfiction is any indication) seem to struggle with the same things I struggle with. They are generally happy, though predisposed to isolation. Despite this predispostion, they would love, really, to be in the middle of everything. They can see the humor in their own misfortune even as everything is falling to pieces around them (if you are prepared for failure, after all, it cannot help but be a little funny).

But even that doesn’t quite do it. I really am not sure I can define it. (Then why the hell are you writing this blog? you may wonder. Because it is my blog and I want to, I answer.) His writing has a twinkle, I think. It is the same twinkle that most of my favorite books have (I am thinking especially of Winesburg, Ohio). The thing about Michael Chabon is that this twinkle seems to be present in nearly everything he does, even the things that don’t quite work (I’m looking at you, Gentlemen of the Road). What most authors are lucky enough to catch in a bottle once or twice in their lives he seems to have in ready store and under complete control. This little bit of magic is something I try to put into my own writing it is what I strive for.

His work is so important to me that I can sum up my career (dubious though that term may be, at present) and growth as a writer with a simple story: The first time I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the book for which he won the Pulitzer, I thought that ever trying to write again would be pretty pointless. I could never hope to do that, after all, so why bother. I did bother as it turns out (thus the existence of this blog and the myriad of tales of variable length at rest on assorted drives both hard and flash and, occasionally, in print), and I have read the book a few times since. The last time I finished it and when I finished his most recent book this afternoon, I had a thought quite different from the first time. I need to write, I thought. If I try, I might be able to do that.

September Book Log

October 1, 2009

Ah, the start of the school year. I didn’t have nearly as much time to read this month. For those curious, the new authors I’ll be reading are: Jose Saramago (Blindness), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton), and Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses). I’m looking forward to all of them. Now, on to the log:


1. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen (4.5/5) – Quindlen was the new author Cate suggested to me with this book designated as a god starting point. I enjoyed it. It was very good without quite being great. The central mother-daughter relationship is wonderfully developed And the description as you watch the mother deteriorate is chilling. That said, the male characters don’t get much development and the epilogue felt awfully forced to me. Minor quibbles, though. This is a very, very good book.


2. The Short Stories of Anton Chekov by Anton Chekov (4.5/5) – This book was read as part of my attempt to catch up on some classics I’ve been meaning to get to for years, but just haven’t. I really loved a lot of these stories. Chekov is very good at making his stories feel magical (almost faerie tale-like) without actually having anything magical happen. There is something about his tone that is so gentle. He does an especially god job with female characters (many modern writers could learn from him here). All that kept it from being a 5.0 is that I can only handle reading so much about the bleak Russian countryside.


3. The Machine by Joe Posnanski (4.5/5) – The first book of the season that I was eagerly anticipating. My favorite sports writer writing about my favorite team (the Reds). Posnanski is a wonderful story teller and does a fantastic job of humanizing people who have been placed tightly into very specific boxes for many years. The decision to make the manager, Sparky Anderson, the center of the book was surprising and worked very well. I could have done with a bit more on some of the players (Geronimo & Concepcion among others), but it was a very entertaining read, well written, and nicely buttressed with historical context (Watergate, Born to Run, etc.). Well done.


4. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (4.0/5) – I read this largely because I needed something to read while I was waiting for The Year of the Flood to come out. It’s the weakest Atwood I’ve read, but that is more a comment on her consistently fantastic writing than any failure in this particular work. Atwood chooses to tell the story of Penelope with contemporary language, and, while that often works to the books advantage, it does occasionally take a bit of weight away from the story. Penelope’s flighty tone makes it feel as though she is concealing something, and I would liked to have known what that was.


5. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (4.5/5) – This is the sort-of-follow-up to Oryx and Crake (technically, they both take place at the same time), and it is interesting to once again roam around in Margaret Atwood’s brain as it imagines what horrible things could befall society. The scary part as always is that she might end up being right. The key to these works is that Atwood pays such close attention to her characters that it adds credibility to the dystopia. Oryx and Crake was a masterpiece, and this falls just short of that. Still a wonderful book.


Fall Book Queue Update:

Robert Frost’s Poems by (ahem) Robert Frost
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Anton Chekov’s Short Stories by (double ahem) Anton Chekov
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Reivers by William Faulkner
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Machine by Joe Posnanski
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Out Stealing Horse by Per Petterson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff