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 review: 2016

Well! 2016! 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.

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.”


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?

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.