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 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.

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.

Drive

What if there is no one at the wheel.

What do you mean.

I mean we wonder so much about intent in this novel, about Kohler’s intentions versus Gass’s intentions and whose are primary and how we are meant to conflate or separate the two, but what if neither writer nor narrator is driving this book. What if the whole thing, the bloated bundle of pages, the complete collection of words, the entire enchilada, what if it is all simply symptom, cause’s effect, history’s inevitable utter vomit.

What must of necessity come back out when you stuff the world full to bursting with violence and optimism.

Of course then the question is: what next.

Loss in life

Loss in life: that’s what I mourn for; that’s what we all mourn for, all of us who have been touched by the fascism of the heart. It’s not having held what was in our hands to hold; not having felt the feelings we were promised by out parents, friends, and lovers; not having got the simple goods we were assured we had honestly earned and rightfully had coming.

— from The Tunnel by William Gass

You can read pages and pages of this book without connecting with a word of it, or without seeing the connections that might (or might not) be forming between the words, between them and you. It can feel very much like trying to see the entirety of the horizon from a single black jigsaw puzzle piece, plucked at random from a jar of thick sludge. Who is this guy, what is his story, what is he trying to tell me? Why do I sort of detest him even when I sometimes sort of think he’s maddeningly brilliant in the way he spins his words into meaningful prose?

For all its dispensing of plot and deconstruction of character, though, The Tunnel is still, at heart, a confessional, a book (weirdly) within the confessional tradition. And therefore begs us to allow ourselves to see ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, or, in this book, in his chair. Now and then, recognition glimmers. However murky. However much it sits uncomfortably in our laps.

It’s a perfect book for today, in its way. In our social media culture, how much of each other do we actually ever get to know? Whither the connections?

And breaking, and breaking

I’ve been reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for the latest Big Read at Conversational Reading. In large part because it’s one of those many books I’ve bought along the way with great intentions only to watch them slowly collect years’ worth of dust and dammit if I’m not going to read at least a few of them before I die.

“Reading” might be the wrong word though. The wrong term. It’s more like, more like drifting through it, like a photo of a vacation taken before the trip actually takes place. You see it but you don’t really get it. You don’t taste the ice cream. You don’t sweat the sun. You’re not at all there.

It really is a constant, claustrophobic reminder of human morality, of limitations on experience. A single trip is almost wasted on trying to grab it as it happens. While a return trip is only going to cost you.

Dearly.

I’ve been breaking

I finished school in May.

Since then, I’ve been on break, which mostly means I’ve been going to my day job and then trying very hard to do not a thing at night, and failing, a lot. Turns out when you’re used to going 80 miles an hour for about that many hours a week, when you suddenly have buckets of free time, and a desire to quote-unquote relax, it’s real easy to wind up staring at the walls, locked in the embrace of indecision. That is, when you’re not getting sucked into pretty much whatever you can justify as a way of breaking out of your “break” in order to not, you know, waste the entire night staring at the walls.

Reading, in particular, has been a casualty of this war against time, lately. I’ve started and stopped more books in the last few weeks than I have in probably the last ten years combined. It’s a little silly.

The last book I actually finished was a doozy, though. Heliopolis by James Scudamore is a pretty fantastic little book about economic disparity of the most extreme sort. It’s one of those books that’s pretty great throughout and then the last few pages just pick the whole book up and slam it through the hoop it’s created for itself. Killer stuff. Recommended.

So maybe it’s a case of having a hard time finding the book that’s meant to follow that. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve tried too soon to break out of my YA rock block. School got intense and it was about all I could handle this last semester. Of course, even then, I was reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, so, like, yeah. Brain, pummeled. And now I’m two-thirds through the Hunger Games trilogy, with the third book finally on the shelf across from me. I suspect I’ll have better luck with that than, say, DeLillo. I mean, Libra started fine and all, but. DeLillo and burn-out do not go well together.

The timing sucks. A bunch of large-scale group reads have started up across the Internet this week, such as #OccupyGaddis, a read of William Gaddis’s J R, and the Conversational Reading Big Read of A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, both of which sound awesome fun to the version of Darby that has the extra free time and the desire to use some of it contemplating and writing about tough literature much more often than he’s been able to the last few years, less awesome to the version of Darby that is dealing with the brain-cycle hiccup train crash that is that free time.

I’ve got things I should be doing, too, anyway, I guess. But.

In other news I’ve got a book review coming out in August that I somehow wrote during this last semester of school—I look forward to finding out what I actually wrote when the review comes out.

And I’m getting ready to self-publish a chapter of the graphic novel I started as a school project. Because it is 2012. And I can. So I will. (My imaginary Kickstarter campaign has already netted me an imaginary quajilliontry dollars so I ought to be able to handle the expense of posting the PDF and saying, “Fly.”)