Half-baked thoughts at the end of a twice-baked year

It’s been a weird year, you guys.

From the long novel project to the sort of semi-ish still in process pop-novel project, which I don’t think I’ve gotten around to saying anything about anywhere, to the absurd PDF blog post, an effort that sort of cemented a lot of my thoughts and feelings about how and why we talk about books (I mean, somewhere in there, maybe in an end note or something, and maybe only slightly apparent to me) to The No Crumbs Project, an effort that underwent a massive identity crisis (the panic did, indeed, set in), one that’s still in progress but is starting to result in some stuff I’m quite proud of, to the one book review I published this year, for a pair of books I really do love and look forward to reading again and which I’d love to see more people reading and talking about, to the round table discussion I had the chance to participate in…it’s been a year of actually a lot more activity than I necessarily might have realized, which was all around focused on nothing particularly definitive. Which is fine. Nice, even.

But, you know, weird.

I mean, just from a personal perspective. I won’t even get into, like, Borders, or ebooks, or much of anything that has actually happened outside of my head.

I guess I’m left wondering in a vague non-committal way what the state of book discussion and reviewing and interpretation and actual reading is like, right now. What’s happening out there? I’ve got a better sense of what I’ve got ready to bring to the table, and I’m really excited about polishing up some of this work I’ve been engaged in the last four months; still, there’s a lot of burning questions I’d planned on asking—and getting answers to—that I never quite got fully immersed in, not the way I’d hoped to, or expected to.

At this point I guess I hope more that someone more suited to the tasks is doing that work and I get to see the results sometime. (Please.) Because now I know I’ve got some plans for 2012, which will take me in some interesting directions, with regards to design and story-telling and books and art. And, like, the panic will probably set back in, but. There might be some noise to be made, along the way.

I heard that blogging isn’t cool anymore which means now I can blog all the time again and say whatever I want and oh yeah I’ll still have the longest post titles in Litblogtown because I’ve got game, son, even when I’m not playing

Editor’s note: this post got away from us, slightly, and, therefore, is presented in two versions. The body text of the blog post is provided below. The (hopefully far more fun) version is available as a downloadable (and more or less printable PDF, at least, printable, if you skip the cover page, though, to be fair, at the time of publication, I have not actually tried printing a copy, so, if you try, please, report back with your experience and/or suggestions for improvement, which will be addressed after a vacation I’m about to go on in a matter of hours, which may or may not take me directly into the heart of Irene, which is awesome, yeah) here:

“I heard that blogging isn’t cool anymore” extended mix (with endnotes, endnote footnotes, some pictures, and one imaginary pullquote).

Late last year, I decided the only way I could ever work through my ever-growing TBR pile would be to tackle it in strict chunks. Like, line ’em up, knock ’em down piles, projects, whatever you want to call them. Looking at my stacks of books, both physical and virtual, I realized there were a lot of long books on there, both physically and spiritually. Books I wanted to read or re-read but which I knew could easily get put off for months or years at a time, which fact I knew because it was exactly what I had done with most
of them.

Flash forward almost eight months, and I’ve just begun reading the last book on that pile. Like Callie Miller, who has spent the last I don’t know how long re-reading all of Haruki Murakami’s novels, I’m:

…floundering a bit on many fronts. I don’t really want it to end. I very much want it to end. I probably should have written about each book as I completed it. I should have taken academic-style notes. I’m glad I didn’t do anything  of the sort.

There is so much to say about all of these books I’ve read this year. And I kick myself a little bit for not saying more about them, until I give myself an actual break and realize that, hey, I’ve been working a day job and going to school and starting to develop these like professional-level design career plans and, oh yeah, taking on a freelance-type project here and there. If I haven’t been as active a blogger in the last few years, it’s not because I haven’t wanted to write more about books. I have. Badly. But at the end of the day, the day has to end, whether or not you’ve accomplished the thousand items on your to-do list for the entire year.

So here we are, with about 900 pages between me and the end of both Against the Day and my big crazy stupid ambitious reading project for the year, and me wondering if the question about a project like this is, what exactly from it did you learn, are you learning?

And I think one of my stated or unstated goals was to learn to be more wholly focused on the book I’m reading right now and spend less time looking forward to the book that follows. Frankly, it’s a lesson I’m still grappling with, knowing how much I both want to continue enjoying a book like Against the Day for years at a time while also hurrying up through it right now today to finish it so I can get to the short short short and also hopefully fast books that I have lined up after it. It’s a pseudopainful paradox, the dual calls placed by literature to our eyes and minds, one call from the page in front of us, one from the pages that follow. But lining up all these sorts of books in a row does serve as a refreshing sort of antidote to that latter call, a recognition that, for someone with some role to play in the modern world of books, really, it’s okay to just check out for a while and actually go read some other stuff, whatever the current buzz might be.

What an exercise like this does not teach is the patience to get through a terrible book for the sake of saying you got through a terrible book. It does teach patience with books that aren’t easy going; I had put The Recognitions on this reading list for the year because I knew I needed to read it at least once, but now, having read it, having pushed through it, having understood maybe a quarter of it, I can safely say it’s going back onto some re-read project list down the line in a couple years maybe, because, huh wait what the huh wha wha wha? Parts of it were insanely awesome and parts of it might have been awesome if I knew what was going on and other parts were words on pages that went in one eyeball and out the other, but at least I read it, essentially, and saw enough in it to know I want to go back to it someday, armed with more coffee and a willingness to tackle something complex and difficult in a meaningfully focused quasi-academic way. Unlike Giles Goat-Boy, which I am not ashamed to admit I gave up on after about a hundred fifty pages, because I hate allegory. There are books you push through because they feel worth it, like exercise, which is horrible but good for you, I guess, and then books you just say no to, because, let’s face it, flabbo, you’re just no marathon runner, and your time on this earth is brief.

On a more specific note, one nice surprise to come from this project was that I learned that it is possible to enjoy War and Peace completely, without reservation, as a novel of ideas and characters, story and mood, and that most all of the baggage associated with the title “War and Peace” is bullshit, and worth ignoring, but that, you know, if you don’t make it through the book, that’s okay, too, so long as you do or do not make it through the book with clear eyes and full hearts.

Before this project began, the idea of re-reading books seemed silly, optimistic at best, what, again, with all the new stuff and un-read old stuff that has yet to be tackled. As I come to the end of this project I realize now that I could spend the rest of my life reading only the books I’ve read up to this point in my life because it’s not really re-reading when you’re a completely different person than you were when you first read the book.

Which about sums up my experience with Infinite Jest, a book I am so very glad I have finally re-read, and which about I can mainly say that it is, in fact, well worth re-reading, and that, surprisingly, and despite what certain recent Internet debates might have you think, style is the least interesting thing about the book we could be talking about, and that if you haven’t read the book since sometime before September 12, 2008, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re in a healthy enough place mentally before you pick it up again. Which you should do, someday, whenever is right for you because, really, it’s still an awesome book.

Following up Infinite Jest was probably a fool’s task for any book on the list, which may have helped contribute to the re-downfall of Giles Goat-Boy, but the next full book I read, the one I just finished last week, was probably one of the other most pleasant surprises on the list.

I put Warlock on here not because it was absurdly long but because I sort of worried it would feel like it would feel absurdly long. I am no genre snob, I grew up on the stuff and I look forward to reading more of it, but something about the idea of reading a western sort of chafed the wrong way. Like, I don’t know, I’ve never read or watched any westerns ever, I think; I guess the closest I’ve ever come would be the gunslinging action in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which, I know, come on, right? But I mean the book’s a NYRB book and those guys and gals consistently put out awesome books and plus it got the nod from Grace Krilanovich and Thomas Pynchon so why not right? Turns out it’s one of the best books. Engaging and enjoyable and the style is perfect and there’s a good reason why the back cover copy drops casual mention of the fact that it was published at the height of the McCarthy era in America; ah social paranoia, yes! Good times. All of which is still perfectly relevant to our modern society. And plus gun fights and a lot of whisky and also whoring and honor and cold-blooded murder and references to the yellowness of bellies, which, all, basically, are, like, the ingredients of anything that is awesome at all, right? Which is to say: go, go read this book, because I loved it and I want you to love it too.

It timed out well for me, too, the spot it took in the year. One of my favorite things when reading a stack of seemingly unrelated books is when one book talks to the book that preceded it, when a theme gets picked up and mutated in some new way, when some weird connective thread lays across their separate pages like some bit of spider silk. When immersed in these long books that kind of connectivity is both there and not there. I mean, obviously, reading Life and Fate right after War and Peace, connections out the ears, but without sitting down with the pencil and the notes and the time by the bucketload, hard to really lay it all out, because there’s so much. But then what of connections between the other books I read this year? Hard to say; so much gets lost when pulling one author’s all-eclipsing sky down and replacing it with another. And plus all the other nonsense going on in life. But then here I am about to lift back up out of these cross-country treks and it’s like Thomas Pynchon and Oakley Hall got together one day and decided to work together to remind me that it’s all the same journey, which, okay, cheesy, but, still, you know? What I’m saying is Against the Day, in its way, picks up almost exactly where Warlock left off. It’s spooky and weird and not impossible that it was planned that way. And also mostly just exciting and awesome and weird and it raises more questions than can be answered or even asked in one blog post.

And so what then? Long books are long, right? And sometimes they’re awesome and it’s worth reading a bunch now and then because you get this flow going and you get an author doing things to your head for a while or maybe for a week if you’re reading particular fast or are on vacation or just unusually focused; nothing too deep. But, oh, there is depth, depth of experience that can never really translate to a discussion or an explanation, which fact is what we all dance wildly around in our blog posts and our reviews, the fact that reading a book isn’t like how we say it is but exactly how we feel it is. All of this imperfection serves to amplify and confuse and enlighten and strengthen the experience, sure, but. It goes back around in a somewhat forced and self-aware-ly circular way to what Callie said in my quote up top: academic notes are fine, but this time, I’m glad I didn’t take them. But, you know, maybe, after all, we can still talk about it, a little bit, at least. Maybe. Sort of. Kind of.

 

Round table on Stone Arabia

Okay, so, okay: more stuff coming, but, and I’m way late on this, but: I took part semi-recently in a super cool round-table discussion of Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, which is a pretty good book, and I think the conversation was pretty good, too, despite my being in it. It’s over at Reluctant Habits. You can start at part one and then work your way forward. Thanks again to Ed for inviting me to take part and to everybody else for making the discussion so lively and good and all-around spoiling-me-with-regard-to-most-everything-else-I-read-now-in-that-I-wish-I-had-a-collective-to-discuss-with-once-done.

(And aside from that I “finished” The Recognitions which I just need to re-read some day because, huh? And I am halfway through Infinite Jest and love it even though it’s a much darker book the second time through plus ten years. So. More on all this later. Also I’ve got a review that is in the works for mumble mumble about mumble by mumble which I’m excited about because mumble mumble.)

Spoiler alert: it’s really not all like that first chapter…

…our hero realizes (recognizes?) as he reads through the readable, though highly disorienting, second chapter. As Matthew Cheney put it, some time ago:

I enjoyed much of The Recognitions on that first reading, but also knew that I was missing a lot, perhaps even 80% of what the book was up to. For one reason or another, I didn’t mind being lost in the book, though. I was both lost in the book in the traditional sense — engrossed, enchanted, beguiled — and lost in the pedestrian sense: I kept forgetting which character was which and how they related, had no idea for many pages what was going on, and sometimes wondered if English were even a language Gaddis and I shared. Consequently, my memories of The Recognitions are impressionistic, imagistic, and not tied at all to narrative or meaning.

link

Which, well, yeah. Suddenly we’re in Paris and there’s a lot of French dialogue and a lot of non-linear descriptive about stuff I’ve got little bearing on, and, uh, yeah. Maybe not the best chapter to try to get lost in with an itchy bandaged finger pointing one way and a pre-dinner stomach point another way.

Still, the book keeps coming back to some kind of ground, some entirely relatable, entirely, ah, forgive me, again: recognizable bit of prose. Such as:

He painted at night, and often broke off in a fever at dawn, when the sun came like the light of recovery to the patient just past the crisis of fatal illness, and time the patient became lax, and stretched fingers of minutes and cold limbs of hours into the convalescent resurrection of the day.

– page 69

Which is a strange way to put it, and a strange call-back to the sunrise stuff from the first chapter, but: it’s enough. Enough to move me into the next paragraph, which may or may not be immediately (or less so) get-able.

Smart people books aren’t just for smart people, or shouldn’t be, at least

“Something to keep in mind when you start reading, Gaddis considered this [The Recognitions] a comic novel. Don’t forget to laugh amidst all that erudition and fancy language.”

link

Which: yes.

Standard disclaimers and apologies aside about infrequent posting, etc etc etc, yadda yadda yadda, full time job, school, recent discovery that I’ve likely been suffering from a sort of frakking eczema the last six months; the usual. That said there’s some cool stuff in the background that is in fact straight up book-related which will be coming around over the next couple months. So that’s fun.

But anyway, back to The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, a book that marks the incredibly fat, incredibly dense mid-point of my reading challenge for the year, a reading challenge I humbly admit to pridefully believing I’d have been all the way through by now. Because ambitious goals for unrealistic times, right? Anyway, no, still here, still reading, slowly, occasionally, but, with something like something to show for it. Or so.

Anyways. The Recognitions, I’d like to blog about this one a bit more, because I think I once said I would; give me about a month and I might have more time to make good on this promise. I’m going to at least in good faith start by saying I’ll admit to actually knowing terribly little about Gaddis or his works, other than, they’re big books by a white male protopostmodernist, which is fancy talk for shit people brag about reading cuz nobody actually does. Except me and some other people along the way I guess.

The thing about some of these “great books” people don’t actually read because why would you bother reading this “great books” is that they can actually also just be good books. See also, War and Peace. See also, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a book I just now noticed I completely missed blogging about, even though it was awesome and made for a really phenomenal follow-up read to War and Peace. These books, many other books, whatever, you get past the professor talk and snobby attitudes and bad raps, and they’re still books written by people for people. Which sounds a little kumbaya, sure, but.

But, so: I’m one chapter into The Recognitions so it’s too soon to declare the book great or good, but what I can say I’ve found in the first sixty pages that I didn’t expect to find has been a lightness of tone, of that modernist sort, that makes me really glad I’ve got some John Barth lined up for later in my reading list this year, because I think there’s going to be some nice call-and-echo action there. I was going to say it avoids slapstick, but then, here, the quote I find for an example of that deft lightness of humor:

—It looks fine, it still looks fine, the Town Carpenter said now, backing into a chair stacked with paintings and sketches and knocking the whole thing over, which immediately put him at his ease by giving him something to do.

– page 52

Which, yes! That’s awesome. Or, another line that had me laugh out loud, as out main character

…was taken with a fever which burned him down to seventy-nine pounds. In this refined state he was exhibited to medical students in the amphitheater of a highly endowed hospital. They found it a very interesting case, and said so. In fact they said very little else.

– page 41

Which, again, yes! That’s awesome. And also tells you most all you need to know about the doctors coming up; and also those delicious, loaded words, burned and refined, exhibited and endowed

Bottom line being, while I’m sure the remainder of this book will not be “easy,” there likely being a reason Jonathan Franzen (oh, Jonathan Franzen) dubbed it “the most difficult book [he] ever voluntarily read in its entirety,” (which, yes, Jonathan Franzen, but whatever), what I can safely say is that it has a pretty stellar self-contained opening chapter, a sixty-page coming-of-age story that I’d rank up there with any other coming of age story you might toss out there. Which, okay, coming of age is about the most difficult thing there is, in some ways, but…still, it’s at least slightly relatable, no?

Freedom from Freedom

Okay, maybe I’m not done thinking about Freedom yet, end-of-year forgiveness aside, because I read this article, and it’s by Bret Easton Ellis about Charlie Sheen, which, I know, I know, but it’s actually interesting and makes some points, and as a toss-off comment there’s this bit about how it’s totally “Empire,” whatever that means, to not like Freedom because one finds the characters “unlikable.” Which—–aside from the fact that I’m not sure what the “Post-Empire” way of not liking or liking Freedom would be, and aside from the fact that this point feels shoehorned into an otherwise fairly well constructed list of this-that’s—is a statement I kind of agree with (said reasoning being Empire) even as I disagree with the plainspoken assumption that the book is great and you’re a dick if you think otherwise.

Because I get it. Got it. A little bit. Freedom, freedom, we’re all free. Ride our machines. Act like ninnies. Great. Good point. And I still didn’t like it. But: it had nothing to do with the fact that I found the characters unlikable. I loved the aspect of the book, when you get down to it. I loved that essentially each and every character in the book was a jerk in their own special jerk-like ways. None of them were unredeemable jerks; I liked American Psycho just fine and that book is nothing but unredeemable jerk-ness. (Right?) Frankly, I say: bring on the jerks. Let’s get more books about characters I personally hate, characters I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with at a cocktail party, characters I’d rather dissolve into the margins to escape from than spend time with in the text. Bring on the boors!

What I didn’t like about the book were the fundamental aesthetics of the thing: it was long and drawn out and chunky and clunky and gratingly predictable and inherently sort of dull. It wasn’t good story. And it didn’t offer enough else aesthetically to make up for the fact that nothing really interesting happened. I’m nearly finished with War and Peace, a book over twice the length of Freedom, a book which, frankly, has moved more in the two or three hundred pages I’ve just read than Freedom did across its entire length. I really loved The Corrections when I read it a couple years back and I plan to read it again someday and it’s highly possible I’ll read that book and realize it was everything I just said Freedom was, which is sad, maybe; I do seem to recall that The Corrections featured a cast of miserable, deluded jerks, itself. It’s also possible I’ll love The Corrections again the next time I read it and it’s also possible I’ll give Freedom another go some day and it will click better for me the next time through; the opening two hundred pages or so seemed pretty solid, I think, right? From what I recall? I don’t know.

Point being, you’re perfectly free to like or not like Freedom because or despite the characters were all wackadoodle. I liked the jerks—I just wish they’d been given a better story to tool about in.

(Matt linked to the original article, by the way, so blame him for the above mess. Personally. (We’re all on a first name basis here on the Internet now, right?))

Initial final reaction to The Instructions by Adam Levin: or, that really certainly was one way to start the year

As if there could be such a thing as an initial final reaction to a book I’ve been reacting to steadily for the last two straight weeks: the dust has barely settled on the cover of my copy of The Instructions by Adam Levin and I know there’s conversation set to happen at some point at Counterbalance and so I’m going to try not to blow all my best material here (the bestness of my material being, as always, intra-comparative as opposed to extra-comparative) but I don’t think any of that should halt me from at least tentatively suggesting that this thousand page McSweeney’s title is essentially a good book, a better than good book, a book that no one’s taste could be cast into doubt for considering it a “great” book (“greatness” here being a relatively internal-relative concept, the book potentially being great in itself without attempting to necessarily draw direct comparisons to other “great works of literature,” though it certainly wants that, wants to be taken seriously on that level, a modern day classic in the self-making, as it were), though, personally, I might stop shy (at least for now) of affixing (any sort of) “greatness” to it, in that the dust is still settling and I’m still reacting, still reactive, still a bit taken off guard by how much I did, in fact, like this book (being quite a bit), and, well, the time of judging is no time to cast judgment. Or I’m just a puss. I don’t know. All of which said (and there being much more yet to be said, and I hope as much of it gets said as possible) my main point for now is this: if it’s the kind of book you think you might be interested in reading, then, well, it’s a book that is largely worth reading. I couldn’t fault you for not wanting to read it, or just for falling off onto the wrong side of the fence; lacking the particular nudge I received this time, I’d really rather have likely opted not to read it any time soon, just, because, well, things, but, here I am, and I read it now rather than later, and, in the end, the beginning of the rest of the life I’ll lead after I’ve read this thousand page McSweeeney’s title (a reference I drop again so I can at least tentatively admit that this book is no The Children’s Hospital though that’s a fine thing for it not to be because The Children’s Hospital was a brutal book that broke parts of my brain and heart and I couldn’t have standed to have gone through that again just yet, but, still, yet, this book, The Instructions, it works in a similar sort of sphere as The Children’s Hospital which kind of points the way toward McSweeney’s being a focal point for interesting contemporary literature about fucked-up religious things, which is, you know, cool by me), I can say that I’m glad I read this book now, and, someday, I might read it again, which, I think, is saying something.

Y2K11: So It Begins

Hey! 2010. That happened. It did. And now it’s done. I forgive it for being done! It had to happen eventually. And on this last day of my winter vacation, the day devoted to drinking a strong pot of coffee before nervously spending the rest of the day crying myself to sleep in anticipation of having to wake up before 4 pm tomorrow and, like, having to actually shower and shave for the first time since 2010, I’m really officially ready to forgive myself all the posts I didn’t get to finish. Goodbye, unwritten posts! Goodbye, incomplete thoughts! May you rest in heaven with the angels now. Yet that said I’m not quite prepared to make incredible promises about the year to come. I mean, posting wise. My TBR pile for the year is already huge. I’ve made some of those promises to myself, a big stack of fat novels I want to finally get through, a couple classics I want to re-read, stuff that will stand as the backbone of the reading year. And while I’d like to say I’m going to post about them a bit more frequently, these books, yeah, maybe not. School is still happening. I’ve been through enough optimistic beginning-of-semester stretches by this point to realize my belief that I’m going to finally crack the knack of cramming two hours into one is probably an ill-founded one. I can say I’d like to keep trying, that’s something, right? Yes? No. It’s not. But.

What I can say is I do plan on doing another handful of reviews this year, so long as the fine folks out there who let me write for them continue to let me write for them. So that’s fun. I like doing reviews. I mean, in the sense that I like getting dental work done, right after I’ve had the work done, and I can go home and eat a bunch of pudding and be like, well, that was a good thing I did. (I kid. I mean, reviews are hard. But fun hard.) And I’m currently reading The Instructions by Adam Levin, because nothing says “starting the year off with a thousand page novel” like actually starting the year with a thousand page novel. There’s a planned discussion set to begin sometime later this month over at Counterbalance, which I would link to but the Internet seems to be crying itself to sleep along with me today, so, you know, maybe later. I really wasn’t planning on reading the book any time soon, there being enough other thousand page novels on my shelves to last me a lifetime, but, I guess it did seem like a good warm-up for the year? Maybe? I don’t know. We’ll see. The first chapter was pretty good. Good. Good enough. I will read more of it.

If you’re interested, other books I’ve got lined up to read this year include:

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s been ten years since I first read the book, which, just thinking about that fact, makes me sort of want to vomit. And not sort of but more like definitely. But I’ve been saying ever since that I ought to re-read it and a ten-year re-read seems like the relatively arbitrary but oddly motivating way to go about doing so. Plus, I would personally rather re-read Infinite Jest than begin to tackle The Pale King, the pieces-parts draft of his final novel that’s set to come out this year. I mean no offense to anybody who will be reading King this year, of course. Someday I imagine I will. Right now though, I’m not ready to confront the partial final remnant of a partial life.
  • Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. It has been a little over two years since I read this book, which in a personal lifetime sense is actually not that long, and which in an Internet timeline sense is about a billion years, and which in a Thomas Pynchon sense is a fractally long time (since he has actually published another book since Day came out), but, but, I’ve been yearning to re-read it ever since, and now, this year, I am going to. Probably. I have such a positive memory of reading the book that I think I need to see for myself if it was good in a just a one-off sense or if it could be the classic I think it was. Is. Plus I’m pretty out of touch with literary culture as a whole, I mean, in the sense that as someone who, having done the blogging thing on and off for a while and the reviewing thing for a little bit now probably “ought” to know a thing or two about the literary culture, but, that said, saying that I have little to no right to actually say this sort of thing, I will still say that I kind of get the sense that everyone sort of got “done” with this book already? Maybe? Like it came out and those who read it did and now it’s left for the nerds like me to think kind thoughts about it? Or something? Like, blah blah blah, obsessed with the new, high turnover, etc etc etc. Something. Modern culture, you fickle 140 character mistress. Point being, I’d like to read it again and try to talk about it some more because I think it probably remains an excellent book that people should keep reading and talking about.
  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis. My word. I’ve picked this book up a hundred times and read a paragraph or two and then I’ve put it down and then I’ve picked up something else that is made of candy, comparatively, because I’ve never felt ready to eat steak wrapped in steak on a plate of steak. This year: steak.
  • Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. Barth is one of those authors whose entire oeuvre I’ve been planning to work through for quite some time now. I last left off with The Sot-Weed Factor in 2007, a book which mostly consumed me for a while, and now I think I’m ready to get back into the Barth groove. I mean, it will be a different sort of groove, of course–a Cold War groove, a groove I can dig. (Though to be fair this was actually the first Barth book I ever picked up and I’d started it well before I did The Floating Opera or The End of the Road but which I dropped for whatever reason made sense at the time. Here’s to fresh starts.)
  • Warlock by Oakley Hall. This is, yes, the shortest book on the pile for the year. (So far. This is hardly an all-inclusive list of books for the year. Like, yes, there will be some review titles, and yes, there will be some very short books, and yes, there will be books by women. Pinkie swear.) It’s a book I’d picked up randomly because, hey, NYRB books equal good fun. Then I reviewed this really good debut novel by Grace Krilanovich called The Orange Eats Creeps. It’s a book that has received a really gratifying amount of buzz–it’s nice to see something so weird and fun and “uh!” get so much attention. That attention included a stop by Krilanovich at Codex in which she discussed five books she’d recently read, one of which was Warlock. I don’t normally dip into the “western” genre, but that bit of serendipitous timing, coupled with the up-front blurb on the book cover by Thomas Pynchon, equals a sold me.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I hear this book is okay. I think it made a lot of year-end blog lists in 1869?
  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Speaking of really huge Russian novels. This is a recent acquisition–the kind of fat book that draws the eye then hooks into it with that little NYRB bubble on the spine before devouring it whole with its back-cover description. A WWII novel submitted for publication in 1959, summarily censored, and later smuggled out of Soviet Russia and published in the U.S. in 1980, I’m kind of imagining this is going to make for an interesting paring with War and Peace. Hunches.

All of which seems like a bloody lot of book to read in a year, and it is, especially when I plan on taking a drawing class in the spring because I have a strange desire to feel humiliated to pieces on a twice-weekly basis and an independent study in the fall because I have a strange desire to do an absolute shit-ton of crazy-work for four months, and what with the day job and all, but, at least, when physically measured with hands and fingers, this pile only measures up to half the stack of the 2010 pile, which, admittedly, was smaller than it probably ought to have been, since I got lazy on occasion in 2010. (And The Instructions is way bloody fattier than it needs to be. I think the thing is bound with a used-up Slinky.) So, you know, plenty of time for the other things I plan to read and then fail to talk about as much as I should, except for those books which I will very much talk about almost as much as they deserve, including books slated to come out this year, some of which you fill find in a list at The Millions and in a list at Reading is Breathing and in a list at Conversational Reading. (So, yes, publisher-type people: I still want to know about books you think I might want to review that might be up my alley. Drop me a line. I’ve had the most fun with reviews when I’ve picked up a book, started it, and then felt compelled to find a place to make me write about it.) Plus I might actually catch up on books from 2010 that I never got around to. (I’m looking at you, The Passage and Skippy Dies, you also not-skinny novels.)

Also I am vaguely planning other things that may begin to fold in my interest in design and visual communication work. Here’s to seeing.

New Review at The Quarterly Conversation: Stephen Dixon, What Is All This?

The Winter 2011 (2011?) Quarterly Conversation is live. It includes my review of What Is All This?, the new Stephen Dixon short story collection. The review begins sort of like this, though you’ll have to go over there to see the footnotes (footnotes?):

What Is All This? is a potent, refreshing collection of previously uncollected short stories by Stephen Dixon. Though the music world might label this an “odds-and-sods” collection, this volume cannot be dismissed so lightly. This? is a book that reminds us fans why we enjoy Dixon’s writing and gives inquiring neophytes an excellent opportunity to sample the kinds of things he has gotten up to over the last five decades.

Any attempt to sum up Dixon as a writer would be a fool’s quest. So, allow me: he uses male narrators and a lot of dialogue and limited description and down-to-earth language, except when he doesn’t. His language can be transparent, translucent, opaque. His sentences can last for pages; three words alone can knock you out of your chair. He avoids grand statements and shuns the workshopped sheen of the parabolic arc, preferring instead straight lines or scribbles, action that bleeds off the edges or compresses all into boxes of black ink. Sometimes he shatters frames and builds new things from the slivers. Sometimes, his stories are simply stories. To put his work in context, the back flap author bio has it that Dixon grew up reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Kafka. Fair enough: his work reads like each filtered through the rest.

Also, timing is everything, I suppose? The December 2010 issue of Bookslut includes a lengthy, excellent interview with Stephen Dixon (not by me). The money quote comes down at the bottom and gives me the chills:

You have been working on a novel, His Wife Leaves Him, for the last four to five years. How would you best describe the scope and scale of this epic length work-in-progress?

I’m not quite sure. It’s definitely my most emotional work as well as, perhaps, being my funniest. It might also be my most adventurous structurally, and also the cleanest and clearest writing I’ve ever done. It’s also my most elegiac. I’ve never been so satisfied with a work, which is why it’s so difficult to complete. I don’t want to let it go, but it’s told me recently I have to — that I’ve come to the perfect finish — and anything beyond what I’ve planned as the ending will hurt the book.

Today’s November 15. I’d say that by December 1, the novel will be done. It won’t reach 900 pages, but it’ll be close.

Uhm. Yes. Please.