2018-002: The Human Stain, Philip Roth

“There could be such a gigantic gap between what she liked and what she was supposed to admire—between how she was supposed to speak about what she was supposed to admire and how she spoke to herself about the writers she treasured….”

When I look at my reading habits, when I think about myself as a reader, I see myself oscillating between two extremes; between the reader who wants to be the kind who reads Philip Roth, and the reader who knows he’s more at home reading Stephen King. I want to be engaged with capital-L literature; big social themes and deep thoughts and virtuosic crafting of language. I know I’m more interested in finding out what happens, who did it.* But I know I’m not entirely happy wholly at one end or the other. When there’s less motion to the story, I grow restless and fidgety. But when the story’s about little more than it’s own motion, I feel hollow, unsatisfied.

I also know this spectrum and my placement of myself on it are fabrications, but they’re useful ones, ones that help me describe my headspace and the internal tensions that I prodded and poked at as I read The Human Stain, the third book of Philip Roth’s American Trilogy.** Why do I read 20, maybe 30 pages of Roth, whose prose is so not hard and is so often so punchy and grabby and physical and damned well-done, only to get distracted by pretty much whatever? I could certainly, likely, sit down tomorrow and fly through who knows how many pages of the The Stand without really trying. I recognize that both are awesome, in different ways, but, man, what’s slowing me down when it comes to the book without the death virus in it?

I pick on Roth and King for convenience sake, trusting you to know what I mean, and that we can both agree that the situation is certainly far more complex than that. True, the prose styling of Roth is more savory, a bit meatier, and yet there certainly is story to Stain, a certain what-happens-next element to it, though it’s of a whole with the first two books of the trilogy—American Pastoral and I Married a Communist—in that they’re more about keying off neatly summarizable plots focused on specific events and just unfolding around them, digging in, swooping back out, revisiting, circling, zooming, withdrawing, shifting and sliding between periods and points of view. Finding the waves of complexity and conflict that certain events invite and expel, swallowing swaths of the American experience in the process.***

And what is the American experience?

“To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving—and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.”

I was reminded, reading reviews, about this theme, throughout Roth’s writings and the Zuckerman books in particular, of generational rebellion, of the leaving behind of what feels like someone else’s past toward one’s own future, and that might be what I’d attach myself back to, in the hypothetical future where I re-read the series, looking to see what I missed the first time through. I also wonder about the supposed nostalgic threads that run through the books, as I come to them here in an America in 2018 where the very notion of nostalgia has been co-opted (well, has been co-opted more loudly and horrifyingly than ever before) toward sickening, racist ends.

Hmm. I’m not really satisfied with any of this. Anyways: want some stray thoughts? I got some stray thoughts:

  • Who’s going to be the Philip Roth of this incredibly dumb historical moment we’ve landed ourselves in? The 20th century was a pretty fascinating century and here we are in a time that is somehow both far more simplistic and far more complex, better yet dumber at the same time. Who’s doing for us what Roth is doing for them?
  • And just how easy is it to see the connective tissue between the history Roth describes and the one we find ourselves in now?
  • After finishing Stain, I’ve only got one Zuckerman book left to go, Exit Ghost. (Which I’ve already ordered. No time like the present. By which I mean, who knows when, actually.) I read a handful of Roth’s slimmer, later books a while back—Indignation, which I think I liked, and Everyman, which I recall feeling particularly affected by; I mean, well, death—so I sort of feel like I can guess what to expect. That said, in sampling reviews of the American Trilogy I’ve also come to realize how little personal stake I have in the idea of Zuckerman as a character, bifurcated from Roth himself to whatever degree. (I suspect I probably need to re-read The Ghost Writer before finishing the series.) Still, though, there’s some degree of, “Well, huh, I guess that’s over,” to knowing that, well, that’s about to be over.
  • Another thing that sampling reviews helped me with was refreshing the context of these books compared to “typical Roth.” They’ve been Roth to me, the last few years, and it’s been an age since I’ve read anything like Portnoy’s Complaint, so I have to remind myself that, yeah, it’s interesting that, for whatever sex there is in these books, they’re not sex books.
  • The idea that the book rails against political correctness feels to me like the least interesting thing about it? As important as it may be to the themes and plot. But there’s probably an entire essay to be written linking that theme of the book through to where we find ourselves today, the evolution of that idea over the last two decades.
  • I forgot about the Anatole Broyard controversy. Secondary sources!
  • I like David Lodge’s summation of what the books that comprise The American Trilogy are about, from a review of The Dying Animal in The New York Review of Books; of course, I’m sure it raises some questions about what that American Dream was about, and whose dream it was to dream, questions that would be worth carrying back into a re-read of the series.

“In these books he adopted something like the model of the classic realist novel, in which individual fortunes are traced across a panorama of social change and historical events, the individual and the social illuminating and borrowing significance from each other in the process…. Their lives are also affected by and illustrative of profound convulsions, conflicts, and crises in American social and political life over the past half-century…. The trilogy is a kind of elegy for the death of the American Dream as it seemed to present itself in the innocent and hopeful 1950s, and has been widely and deservedly acclaimed.”

* – Funny, for someone who doesn’t read that much mystery.

** – I read the trilogy one per year, starting in 2015, as whatever may have been left of whatever the American Dream might have been has gotten chewed up, spat back out, and urinated on. This book-a-year strategy, I’ve been using it to work my way through some collections like this, for better or for worse. It worked well for Roth, where the connections between the books were more thematic than anything. It also worked surprisingly well for the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake, which I read one per summer, 2014–2016; I actually really missed having one to work through this past summer. I started reading Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, I think in 2016, but then didn’t quite get back to last year, and at this point I’m thinking maybe I should just read all three in a row, when I get back around to tackling them again.

*** – Which here I want to point out something about how Roth’s writing really isn’t this literary/literarily difficult thing, with passages really getting in deep to the shit of life, getting visceral, and how I wonder how much distance is there, at the end of the day, between King’s endless, italicized internal thoughts, and some of Roth’s close third-person monologue-like literary camera work, like some of Les’s sequences; but then I’m also not sur I want to go there, exactly, either. So.

2018-001: My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

So my first book of 2018, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, was also, technically—for about the first 40 pages or so—one of my last books of 2017, helping me make good on a vague resolution to let myself re-read something in 2017.*

I first read this late in 2015; Elena Ferrante was white-hot at the time, around the time the fourth and final Neapolitan novel was coming out in English, and this was one of those rare occasions I felt myself consciously aligned with the literary zeitgeist. (I mean, she’s probably still white hot, but I’m pretty sure my finger and the pulse of the literary community haven’t exactly snuggled much in a while.) Despite the omnipresent love for the series, I didn’t fall in love myself. I liked it well enough, I think, but for whatever (unrecorded, I suspect) reason or reasons, it didn’t click for me.

I spent a fair portion of this past year considering various options before, in the final couple days of December, landing on Friend as my re-read for the year. It felt like unfinished business—not that there isn’t plenty of that in my reading history, but some lingering feeling of curiosity about the rest of the series must have stuck with me over the last couple years. I’m happy to say that, while I still can’t say I love this book, it did click more for me this time, and I’m happily, vaguely non-planning on reading the rest of the series this year.

I suspect some books, you come to them with certain expectations, and those books need an extra reading so they can break through those expectations, to help you see it for what it actually is. My first time through, I knew the series dealt with a complex friendship (or was it a complicated relationship?) between two women, starting with their childhoods and running through the courses of their lives. And the first book certainly sets that up. But that’s not the full story, I think, and what stuck with me from the first reading and I had a better headspace for this time is the context in which that friendship plays out, the violence and confusion and ugliness of the world in which these two find themselves and each other. I enjoyed the depiction of Naples and the wealth of characters who populated it; the scene and setting kept me hooked throughout.

It was generally pleasing to see that the book didn’t feel like a complete stranger this time through, that whatever I picked up the first time through really did help me like it more this time, knowing what I was getting myself into. Plenty of story beats came back into focus as I read through them; the fireworks sequence once again stood out for me, the two girls leaving town for the first time thinking they could walk to the ocean; there was also the general theme of men being total creepshows. (Topical.)

And yet, again, as I think happened my first time through, I found myself feeling a little drifty toward the end. What about the focus on Lila’s wedding is it that trips me up? Or Elena’s schooling, and my inability to internalize what a big deal that is for her or her community? The distance between these two characters representing itself as a haziness between me and the book? Something. Or it has to do with all those characters I’m (lazily) not tracking as well as I should clouding up the works.

In any case, I dug it, on the whole. Not in an I’m-addicted way, but I’m still glad I’m fairly well committed to reading the rest of the series. Having better connected with the first book, it’s easier to see how much the context of the remaining books might be necessary to help me better appreciate any of the books individually.

* – Giving myself permission to re-read more things really ought to have been included in my list of non-plans for 2018. It goes hand-in-hand with how I’m trying to reignite my interest in writing about books, in that I’ve come to realize that my recall of books that I’ve read more than ten minutes ago is terrible, and I’d like to do something about that. I guess I read very much in-the-moment these days, without any real force driving me to “retain information” or “notice things” or “actually process the words in an intelligible way”—I mean, no joke, it’s been a god-long time since my English major days, and I’ve long since career-suicided myself off the ship that was sailing toward Professionalish Critic/Reviewer Island, and that pretty much leaves you with yet another drippy middle-aged white male with feelings and a confused-at-best relationship with writing words about the written word—and yet I sometimes realize that it is a total, complete bummer to look at my Goodreads ratings and see five-star books of which I couldn’t pull up a single memory. It’s a little weird. I mean, when I was told, a year or two ago, that Dhalgren was, like, 98 percent really weird sex, I think my reaction was like, what, wait, huh? I thought it was about fog or something? And so while no I’m not likely to actually re-read Dhalgren or War and Peace or do round two of the Summer of Dostoevsky Project 2006, whatever I say all the time, there are some shorter works in there I could blaze through just to see if I could see what I saw my first times through. Aaaand well I also do really want to re-read A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, which I liked quite a bit but wasn’t certain I loved it at the time, but I’ve actually thought about it quite a bit since, though of course that’s another long one for a year that’s supposed to be about shorter ones. So who knows.

Year in preview: 2018

So last year I made vague, loose plans, and I kind of stuck to some of them, and that was fun. Reading is fun! This year, I’d like to drift more; no real specific projects or themes or plans or anything like that. Try to sample more widely and wildly; more fun reading, more serious reading. Just more reading, period. I’ve set my Goodreads challenge goal at 47, which is a personally absurd number that I only theorize is possible because I plan on embracing fewer longer-than-your-shadow-at-dawn books this year.

Which then of course I say that and—as one does to demonstrate one’s deep emotional and physical commitment to the craft of shabby-ass litblogging in 2018 (my god, it’s 2018)—I lift my fingers from the keyboard, and gaze contemplatively up at my TBR pile—which, yes, has already grown at a dizzying, luscious rate in the last few weeks—and I’m thinking, hey, maybe this is the year I finally actually read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I think I tried to start reading it a year or two ago, thinking it was a book I could coast into and out of like a fluctuating breeze. Except then after I read the first fifty pages some time passed and then when I next tried to pick it back up it was like, no idea, what is this, what are books, how do you read them, how do you read? What’s on Netflix? (Thomas the Train, that’s what’s on Netflix, when you have a two year old in the house. Thomas the Trainflix.) Nope: that won’t be the way to read that one. I’m going to need to buckle down and maybe even take a damn note or two and live inside it for a good long while and hope there’s still air out there to come up for by the time I’m done. So that may be my summer, my nice, light, refreshing summer reading that’s going to slide in to screw up my plans of reading 47 books this year or even like more than five books, who knows.

So yeah. No real plans, but maybe one plan.

And okay I really do want/need to keep mixing more non-fiction in, just, in general. I didn’t like that slump I hit last year. Things got ugly. If making myself smarter helps address that, well, here’s to actively trying not to be a complete idiot all the time.

Aaand well, yeah, getting in deeper with more indie presses. There are so many of you out there! I want to love you all. You are worthy of love.

Aaaaaaaand yeah I totally screwed up “reading more women authors” last year. Gang, I have no idea what it is. Every damn time I turn around, it’s like I’ve been in a fugue state, reading books by dudes. Says the guy who is right now reading a Philip Roth novel. I can say that many of my favorite books that I read last year were written by women? There’s that? I guess? I don’t know.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand yeah I’d like to keep getting more poetry into the mix. I do like poetry. I do. I’m just still wildly uncertain how I’m supposed to read it, these days. The way I attacked Saint Friend last year—late at night, standing in the middle of the living room, sipping beer, reciting bits under my breath, like some kind of total weirdo—seemed to work, though it still took me most of the year to actually read the whole thing. (Yes, I finished it New Year’s Eve, just so I could put it on the read-pile before the ball dropped. Don’t judge me. However much I may deserve it.)

And so yeah. Okay. I’ve made no plans but some plans have made me. I’ve offered them no reason to feel I feel committed to them in the slightest, though, so, really, we’ll just see what happens.

I’m also going to blog about every single book I read this year.

(…Until I don’t.)

Year in review: 2017

Well. So much for the whole “write more about books in 2017” resolution!

That said, looking back at my 2017-in-preview post, I can say I was…sort of, kind of on-point this year. I mean, not completely. But sort of! I’ll take it!

While I definitely did not make any conscious dents in contemporary literature—which I did not plan to do—nor did I do much to improve my focus—and, in fact, fell dangerously close to losing any sense of it entirely—I did manage to land my book count at 42 for the year, bouncing past 40 for the first time in many years.

That’s fun.

Reading is fun.

I did focus on the TBR pile for a while, knocking off a number of fat books, some recently acquired, some that had been lingering for a while, despite my best intentions. The pile was definitely smaller, by the end of the year. Which is cool. I mean, yeah, spoiler alert, I’m not repeating that exercise this year, and between Christmas gifts and post-Christmas sales, I’ve already undone some of that quote-unquote “hard” “work.” Which I am so totally cool with because it means I’m totally smart and attractive. Except maybe I made up the part about being attractive. Who’s to say when there’s all these books to read!

There were a few “I’m all done with you, but thanks for playing” moments along the way. I forgave myself—for once and for all (until the next time I try)—for not being able to get into Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I like Dickens. I’ve read a number of long Dickens books, but for some reason, every time I pick that one up, I get about a hundred pages into it and, just drift off into the ether. It’s happened at least three times now I think. I did power through Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, despite not actually enjoying it all that much, and The Gold-Bug Variations by Richard Powers, which I sort of liked, I guess, though I wanted to like it more than I did. (College-age Darby would have loved the hell out of it, I think.) I’ve liked other Powers books much more than this one, though, so I think it might have just been bad timing.

There were other books in that first half of the year I did enjoy plenty! The Nix by Nathan Hill! A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara! The Night Watch by Sarah Waters! I’d like to single out More Curious by Sean Wilsey, an absolutely fantastic book of creative essays. Give it love. And money. The essay on skateboarding made me wish I’d taken up skateboarding, back before I got old and developed fear.

I also knocked a William Vollmann off the pile, which almost always feels like a Herculean task. I can now say The Royal Family is among the most readable, purely enjoyable Vollmann I’ve ever read. I mean, as enjoyable as as story about prostitutes and drugs and death and weird, dark shit can be.I broke this one up over the course of the year, reading about 200 pages every three months or so; I enjoyed the story but it was not a world I needed to sink into for 800 straight pages. Even if it still felt like escapist literature, compared to, you know, the reality we live in today. Good times! I can also safely say I’m probably full up on Vollmann for a while. At least until he publishes something else. Or I get conked over the head and wake up midway through a binge-read of Argall. Who knows!

There was pulpy fun to be had along the way. I finished Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn series, plowing through all 1300+ pages of The Naked God during nap breaks over a long vacation week. It wasn’t even close to being the most well-written thing I’ve ever read, and it would be hard to recommend it to anyone who is not now or does not remember being once a thirteen year old boy. (It’s not exactly…feminist.) But it was enjoyable, if occasionally cringe-inducing, and it scratched an itch for an oversized space-opera with a well-defined ending, and it did a surprisingly good job of wrapping up nearly 4000 pages worth of plot in basically the last few pages. A bit later I read The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. Dark. I look forward to reading the sequel, someday.

So the first half of the year was a successful attempt at shrinking the TBR pile, but then things got a bit weird turning toward late summer. I think I was fried on my long-books TBR pile so I gave up trying to eliminate it, turning away from it so I could get some shorter books in my life. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze and Amatka by Karin Tidbeck were both great fun. I couldn’t wait to pick up Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, because I love me some Swedish crime, and some Other Press, and some Swedish crime from Other Press. I do hope they get to publish more books in the series!

And then things started to get dark. I was reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I absolutely loved—fantastic fantasy/fairy-tale style tale, awesome use of magic, a complex portrait of a young lady coming into her powers, sexy bits—but I was reading it, like, practically a couple lines per sitting, a page or two at a time. It did not have the attention from me it deserved. It felt like my mind was dying. And then I went on and read Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, which I think was supposed to be my jam, but mostly I just felt jammed up.

I decided, or realized, that I was burned out on fiction. Maybe too much fiction was making me feel kind of dumb, and going “lighter” in my choices wasn’t helping. I also blame the world, which kind of sucked all the fun out of the room. And so I went on to reboot my brain with a rock-block of non-fiction, sort of steering into the reality-crash skid. This, oddly, was probably one of the smartest reading decisions I’ve made in a long time. Cumulatively, I think these books got me out of my head, made me feel semi-intelligent again, and reignited my hunger for the written word. Reading is cool again!

Of note from this block, I found Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann eye-opening. Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates made Puritans way more interesting than I ever might have expected. And Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall felt like a tidily terrifying summary of how the entire world is on a knife’s edge of descending into global chaos at a moment’s notice, and however awful things might feel, they could certainly actually still be worse. I really loved this one; but I want people smarter than me who I trust to read this book and confirm or correct my reaction to it, and to suggest the books I should follow it up with, to help me flesh out my admitted ignorance of global affairs.

Memoirs are a good way to remind you that Your Life Is Not The Only Kind Of Life That There Is. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was enchanting, and a well-timed choice. Even more extreme was The Cook Up, by D. Watkins. I can’t lie: it felt like fiction, it felt almost unbelievable in its depiction of a reality that I’ll never come close to experiencing. It felt…humbling? That might not be the right word, but.

And, hey, don’t worry, fiction and I have not broken up, but, in fact, we’re probably better than ever. I even got back on that Proust shit and finished off Within a Budding Grove. I flip pretty frequently between finding Proust awesome and finding Proust maddening but my general thought is I enjoyed this book more than Swann’s Way. Is that weird? That might be weird. I don’t know.

I also got some more short story collections into the mix, dipping into them between other books, finishing off two along the way—my first full Margaret Atwood book, Stone Mattress, and the highly enjoyable Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. What’s more, I even read more poetry this year! Specifically, I read one book of poetry: Saint Friend, by Carl Adamshick. I liked quite a bit of it. “I should do this more often,” I thought, making no concrete plans to actually do this more often.

And so yeah. 2017. I had an okay year! I read a lot of books, I spent a lot of time in the car with my kid, I managed to not fall down flat on my face at my day job, I biked my first metric century, I don’t think I annoyed anybody too much, and I survived the political hellscape that is America. Onward!

Year in preview: 2017

Things I don’t typically do:

  • Keep up very well with contemporary literature. As in like published-right-now literature. Maybe once upon a time I dabbled closer to that, when I was actively pursuing book reviewing as a thing I was trying to do. So, so long ago. But really not so much anymore. Theoretically, I’d like to, more than I do, so I can feel like I’m more a part of more conversations, but I don’t. Partially because I don’t
  • Read nearly as many books as I’d like to. It feels like once upon a time I closed in on that book-a-week pace over the course of an entire year, but that might also be rose-colored rear-view mirrors. I hit 35 books in 2016, 37 the year before that, which does put me stratospherically above many people, based on flimsy stats I’ve half scanned or invented, but it’s not nearly enough, obviously. I attribute this in part to the fact that I don’t
  • Focus terribly well. I don’t sit well for long periods of time, eyes on the page, pages turning almost invisibly, like flowing water. Pointless social media trolling hurts me a bit, a stupid number of professional- and/or hobbyist-level interests also suck up time, but I’m also just generally a bit restless, likely as not to seek out distraction when the task doesn’t require me to have my hands on it. Great for my rockstar coder lifestyle, less good for, like, just, thinking, and stuff.

I have absolutely no plans to solve the above problems.

I mean, if they’re indeed problems. Though I do suspect an increased focus on my inability to focus would be a generally beneficial one, at the least.

That said, these “shortcomings” do rattle around in my head as I think ahead toward what I loosely plan to attempt to do this coming year.

Typically I don’t make specific plans for the year ahead, and I wouldn’t say I’m setting a script in motion this year either, but it does feel like a good year to put a little structure around my reading list. My TBR pile isn’t insane—a few years back, I think, I forget when, I did a concerted effort to focus all my efforts on working the pile down, either via reading or dumping, and I think the residual effect of that effort still lingers in the size and shape of the pile today. At least in so far as it it not absolutely ungainly, still.

I don’t plan on going quite so hard-core this year, because, I mean, buying books and being gifted books is a pleasure, and I’ve also made better use of the local library over the last few years, which is also a pleasure, and, well, pleasure is nice. And I suspect pleasure, done right, could be made great use of in the coming years. Ahem. But I have grown conscious of a sub-set of books in the pile marked by no other commonality than that they’re all kind of longer and feel slightly more ambitious than other books and are often easily passed over in favor of not-as-long and maybe not-so-ambitious books when I’m looking for my next book to read. And I think it might feel good to put a little effort into focusing on those titles for a while and feeling like I’m putting in some good progress on actually reading all the things I really do think I do want to read. Or at least finding a few more titles I can maybe forgive myself of, allowing them to move on to other pastures, while new challenges slip in to take their place.

So there’s about 14.5 inches of 2017 I’d like to get through, right there. It could be an interesting list. There’s a Nabokov in there and another Vollmann, a Dickens, the second volume of Proust. Other things. I expect that part of the pile (which I’ve formally made a well-defined part of the pile) to shift and slide a bit as the year progresses. But hopefully it won’t grow too dusty.

As for other plans for the year, it’s a bit nebulous, really. Not really plans, so much as things I’ll probably think about as the year goes on:

  • I grew conscious of the fact that in 2016 my efforts to diversify the genders of the authors I read fell apart, which is baffling but also sort of not. So I need to do something about that. Because, jeez. C’mon.
  • I’d like to get some poetry into the mix, but, and this might sound dumb, I sort of don’t know…how, I guess. It’s a kind of reading that doesn’t seem to mesh well with how I read these days. That’s something I’d like to figure out.
  • I read more non-fiction in 2016 than I have in ages, and I’d like to keep that going. I’d like to work in more essays, as well. This probably won’t make for a huge percentage of what I read, but I’d like it to continue to feel less like a statistical glitch, more like something with some intent behind it.
  • And then there’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, which I’m probably not going to devote four months to reading cover-to-cover, but which I’d like to get a plan in place to make some honest headway on. I started it in 2016 and I dig it but I realized when I picked it back up later in the year that I was going to have to plan my reading of it a bit better if I was going to make more coherent sense of it. I’m not quite sure what that entails but I think it involves more marginal notes and shorter gaps between sessions with it. We’ll see.
  • And, really, I think I do want to allot some time to re-read a notable book or two, because there’s so many books I say I think I’d like to consider re-reading, but it’s so hard to do. But maybe just identifying even one to spend some time with again would be enough. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Gravity’s Rainbow. Or Perdido Street Station. Or A Visit from the Goon Squad. Or The American Girl. Or you, Summer of Dostoevsky 2006 Project II: The ReDostoevskying. Or…

Which, well, there’s what 2017 may or may not look like.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also the bit about wanting to write about books again. Like, here, on this blog, at least. Because—and I mean this with all the love I can muster right now for the entirety of the contemporary human condition as it chills in the long cold shadow of human history—tweet storms, as a method of complex interpersonal communication, can go ahead and fuck right off. And, if I can, in my own tiny, insignificant, likely unnoticed way, breathe a tiny bit of life into this blog this year and contribute some small amount of noise to the legitimate signal? I’d like to think that’s worth something.

And, well, I think I miss the way we used to be.

Year in review: 2016

Well! 2016! Right? Right?

Right.

Books and I had an odd year.

I read my first full audiobook (Bush by Jean Edward Smith, which was a weird but ultimately interesting choice) and then tried one or two others but didn’t stick with them. Nothing against them, just, podcasts became more my thing for the long daily commute.

I’m still a paper-book addict. But I did find a niche for myself where dipping into ebooks makes sense—poking away at various books about coding and such on my phone during the baby’s nap time. Not too many books I actually finished, for various reasons, but these dark, quiet, snuggly hours do account for a fair number of pages.

I started off the year on a bad note, I think, picking things up and putting things down—according to my Goodreads profile I didn’t actually finish a book until mid-February. And then there were a couple graphic novels. There were some slow stretches where I’d plod through a single book over the course of multiple weeks. And then later I fell into a 2.5 month stretch dedicated to two books (I mean, they were fat books, A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, but still) (I enjoyed them both, by the by).

And then things picked up weird, crazy steam in the home stretch. I finished 35 books in 2016; 12 of those came in November and December.

And I’m pretty sure 2016 was the first year I didn’t post to this blog once since I started it. I did other blogging, elsewhere, about other things. But I sort of feel like I’ve forgotten how to write about books, how to write about what I’m reading.

How to write, really.

Strange year.

I ended on a high point with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, a fast-moving tale of global paranoia that did just enough weird left turns to jazz up what could have been an otherwise fairly rote story. Oddly, I actually started this one earlier in the year, before falling into one of my reading funks; I’m glad I finally finished putting off finishing it off. It would have paired well with Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, one of my semi-conscious attempts to dip into more strong non-fiction this year; I’m not necessarily sure it told me too much I hadn’t already been aware of, or at least suspected, or at least would have pretended to have known about if you’d asked me about it at a party, but it pulled a lot of that stuff (the way mathematical models and/or data science-y stuff is used to manipulate and/or profit off individuals in frankly awful and often terrifying ways) together into a flowing, coherent, eye-opening narrative. The net effect is it makes you want to log off the Internet and move into a log cabin, immediately.

As has been a summer tradition for the last three years, I read a Gormenghast novel. This year’s was the final novel, Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, and I’m already sad there aren’t more novels to come. It’s a fascinating series, a strange play on what “fantasy” is—I mean, not that I’m much an expert on fantasy, really, as I’ve only started dipping into it the last few years, but. The series feels like the closest I’ve come to finding that slow-burn, long-bath experience with a piece of literature in a while, which I’ve heard described but have rarely exactly felt myself—I really enjoyed how unhurried the prose and story felt in equal measure. I could sincerely imagine re-reading it, even though re-reading things seems like a terrible idea, what with all the still-to-be-read-once things waiting in all the wings.

I can also easily imagine re-reading the Expanse series, which I caught all the way up on this year, reading book five earlier in the year and then book six shortly after it came out, and now I have to wait for new books to come out, and it hurts. It hurts. But in the good way. Getting back in touch, at least a little, with sci-fi like this, has been good; brings back some of that childhood enthusiasm for writing that never exactly got lost along the way but which gets sort of sidetracked, or something. I hope to work another series or two into the mix in the coming years.

A handful of other books I liked, in various ways, this year, and which, if I had actually been blogging this year, I might have actually blogged about, but which now I’ll just dump here in bullet form:

  • Fiction
    • To Walk the Night, by William Sloane
    • The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam
    • Beatrice, by Stephen Dixon
    • S., J.J. Abrams
    • The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning
    • The Man in the Picture, by Susan Hill
    • The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
  • Non-fiction
    • The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by
      Brendan I. Koerner
    • Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner
    • The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation, by Adam Steltzner
    • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

And, well, there’s 2016, really. Good times.

Next up: going big, or going home.

“Readable” shouldn’t be a compliment, but

But. In the case of William Vollmann, it’s oddly high praise. Which is to say: I’ve been reading The Dying Grass, and while I generally do enjoy the challenge of a Vollmann book, I’ll be one of the first to admit that there’s often long passages where I just kind of shrug and plow through and wait to pick up the thread again, but, with this book, that isn’t happening all that often. There’s still a good deal of go-with-the-flow here but I find the flow itself to be pretty much front and center and refreshingly followable, without ever feeling either like he’s dumbing the work down or the story down; he’s still stubbornly himself at every turn, but the version of his writing he’s putting forward here is the kind that makes it a lot easier to want to suggest that maybe people who wouldn’t typically read Vollmann might want to give this one a shot. Don’t let the indentation cause concern; for me it feels almost like a poetic or dramatic device rather than one with any real strict literal meaning to it, one that often enough simply blends into the flow of the book but every now and then gives rise to a really startlingly crisp moment of insight and affect. I don’t know that I would literally call this book poetry but I would say that it puts me in mind of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, except you know even for not being poetry Vollmann’s book offers far superior poetry on just about every single page.

Books I’ve enjoyed (to varying degrees) since my last post, and might recommend, depending on conditions too numerous to list at this point in time

I mean, I don’t know. There’s some I could take off. There’s some I could put on? There’s also no real order to the list. It’s a bit of blog throat clearing.

  • The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters.
  • Wonderland, Stacey D’Erasmo.
  • Binary Star, Sarah Gerard.
  • The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro.
  • Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes.
  • The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum.
  • Neverhome, Laird Hunt.
  • I Remember You: A Ghost Story, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
  • Night Film, Marisha Pessl.
  • The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson.

Though, I mean, for all that, like, holy hell, that Wonderland book, I mean…damn. And also obviously and always and forever Kazuo Ishiguro, but you knew that already, assuming you’ve been reading my blog since 1987, or whenever blogging was invented. Ahem.

Ahem.

I’ve fallen in love with The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I sometimes come off like a snob)

At the risk of speaking snobbishly of black-and-white straw men and paper-thin stereotypes, I think there’s two general outcomes for those of us who grew up on science fiction. We either become nerds, or we become English majors. By which I mean, we either stay in love with it and stick with it for the rest of our lives, or we “graduate” to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and speak only furtively, in our cups, of our misspent, naive youths.

I know, I know. Tongue-in-cheek, foot-in-mouth, it’s not so simple. The straw man is easily shoved out an airlock and the English major has no clothes. Bear with me; I promise, gray is my favorite color.*

The second case has long been the extreme to which I’ve felt myself flung toward, accidentally or intentionally. Not all the way, of course, but enough to feel a certain kinship with that hypothetical fellow, but I’ve never once doubted the validity and power and utility and excellence and entertainment of genre fiction, and in my cups, I’d knife you in a bar fight on its behalf, but, that said, whatever happened between my slacker freshman year of high school when I forgot that I liked learning things and doing well on tests and my Brothers Karamazov-loving overachiever senior year of high school when I stayed up late the night before the final just to finish reading the last 300 pages or so has had certain after-effects that have ripped across my life to date, such as a tendency away from the genre fiction I grew up on and loved from an early age and toward books about people doing people-stuff or whatever.

Call it accidental snobbery.

Unintentional elitism.

Semi-unconscious biases.

Being a jerk.

I apologize.

It’s not to say I haven’t read genre since; it’s just that maybe I’ve leaned toward the genre’s literary cross-over heavy-hitters? The China Miévilles, the Jonathan Lethems. The ones where, you know, it’s cool, because, like, they’re not pulp, like, they’re actually literary, man.

Really, I do apologize. For all I’ve said, for all I’ll ever say.

The problem is, whatever your cognitive dissonance and his output levels might tell you, humankind can not live on William Vollmann alone, and as much as I’m essentially and critically entertained through much of the super heavy ironic scare quotes lit-er-ahhh-tschyeeoor I regularly reach for, as much of that reading material should be appreciated for its entertainment value and not just for the ways it quote unquote speaks volumes to our minds about the essentials of the human condition, there do come these points where, gods be damned, I just want a story that takes me out of my own head for a couple hours, and then maybe a couple more hours after that; in the eternal struggle between truth and beauty, I want space ships that blow each other up and dragons that breathe fire, a bit of the old ultraviolence. I want technicolor strobe-light laser beams dancing across my eyeballs and closing credit sequences with heavy 90’s alt-rock screaming out of the speakers as I walk out of the cold vaccuum of deep space dazzled out into the 90 degree sunlight with popcorn grease staining my t-shirt and too much damn Diet Coke in my gut, ready to go back to whatever comes next.

I haven’t been to the movies in way too long, but that’s a story for another post.

The problem, I guess, is that I’m also a grown-ass man who can’t stand bad writing worth a damn anymore. I may have a more flexible definition of “bad” than some others do, of course, but still, the beauty of language will always be a deal maker or breaker for me, I guess.

First world problems.

Point being, as much as I might feel the longing to get wrapped up in a giant comfortable space opera blanket, if the fabric itches and scratches, I’m going to claw my way out before I have a chance to get warm. I won’t name names, but I’ve left a few books like this behind, that just didn’t do it for me. In some ways I’ve wondered if it wasn’t them, if it was really just me, if I was remembering wrongly what it was I liked about sci-fi when I was younger and read it all the time, if, maybe, there really are some homes you can’t go back to again, even when they haven’t changed a damn bit.

Then I picked up Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

Two second cut of that Maxwell cassette advertisement.

It’s the kind of surprising alignment of right book, right time, that happens now and then, though maybe not often enough; when, you know, your brain needs something and your heart needs something and then there’s a book in your hands, and it’s saying, “Yes, yes. I know. Look. I just blew up a space ship for you,” and it’s just somehow perfect. Midway through the book I’d forgotten the other two books I’d taken out from the library at the same time and I was back at the library picking up books two and three in the Corey series because I wasn’t going to screw around and not have the next books in the series immediately at hand when I’d finished the first one, I mean, come on, don’t be ridiculous.

What I admire with my head about these books is the way they balance character and plot development through crisp, tight, propulsive language. I’ve started and stopped books in which the writing felt insulting, somehow, but I didn’t get that, here; I mean, no, we’re not talking William Gass, you’re not going to pick up a paragraph and chew the meaning out of its syllables, it’s function over form, but there’s enough attention to form to make the experience of processing this language smooth and enjoyable. And every now and then they drop a phrase or two that strike the match under a little old fashioned awe and wonder. It’s just enough for what I want these books to do.

What I love with my heart about these books, specifically the first book, is the fact that they refuse to screw around. The first book, there’s a blurb on there about it being the novel equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and, yes, oh gods, yes. I think that the writers’ directive to themselves (the name being a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who teamed up to create this series) in the first book was to ensure that if it seemed like nothing much had happened in the last ten pages, to blow up a ship, start a firefight, or unleash some fresh, mysterious horror that drives a sense of the universe they’re building around the story’s events. Books two and three, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, both settle into a steadier groove, more ready for the marathon than the sprint, in which the scope and mythology expand, the mysteries of the universe grow more detailed and intriguing, all of which remains in service of a story about, of course, humanity, and the fact that we’re, you know, kind of a big old bag of screw-up. And throughout they still write excellent, chaotic sequences, keeping the entertainment value high and the page-turning qualities intact throughout.

I just finished the third book today and have decided to move on to other things, fresh wind in my sails, for at least a spell, before I move on to the fourth novel, or any of the assorted novellas that flesh out the series. What’s exciting about the writers’ process is that they are churning this series out quickly and, it would seam, with little loss of quality, even as the focus of the series shifts its attention from book to book. Last I checked the fifth book is due out next year and they’re under contract for another handful of books after that. If they keep the pace up this series could be my go-to summer-event series for a while to come. And even if not, these first three books form a wonderful sort of trilogy, and that first book just absolutely rocked.

* – Well, okay, it’s actually, like, a greenish-blue color, but, whatever.

Or Eve

I’ve been working on a new visual project of my own for a while now, and I’m getting ready to launch it. It’s called Or Eve. As of right now it doesn’t involve any known human words or languages. But I’ve been spilling a few human words or two about the project (along with some process screenshots) here and there for a while now, which you can find over here.