Saturday, December 30

Empty handed

In addition to the cache of books discovered beneath the tree there was also a rectangular strip made from a substance others more worldly than I knew to be 'plastic.' Apparently I can use this plastic strip to barter for books at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. I know not what possible utility this plastic could serve the purveyors of books, but I am never one to quibble with current trends in bartering--as outlined in the just released Old Barterer's Almanac 2007--especially when, as in this case, I seem to have gained the upper hand.

It may or may not be interesting to note that until just recently I had always been more of a Borders man than a Barnes & Noble man. Borders, as you may know, began in Ann Arbor, and the flagship store on East Liberty really is quite marvelous. When I lived in Boston I used to go out of my way to shop at the Borders by Downtown Crossing even though I lived nearby the BU Barnes & Noble as well as the Prudential Center Barnes & Noble. Just one of those silly quirks of brand loyalty I suppose. But here in Seattle I quite prefer the downtown Barnes & Noble to the downtown Borders (Borders still reigns supreme in the music and DVD departments, but this is Book-Loop, where such ephemera are cast aside in favor of more scholarly pursuits). Perhaps as my college days grow more distant my bond with Borders slowly crumbles. Or perhaps it is simply the case that the Barnes & Noble is more comfortable, their staff far less intrusive as I browse, their patrons far more convivial. Granted, neither of these nationwide behemoths can hold a candle to the local gem that is Elliott Bay Book Company, and so this entire paragraph becomes obsolete.

Because of my allegiance to Elliott Bay it probably comes as no surprise that my Barnes & Noble gift certificate, while received with much appreciation, has caused me some frustration. I stroll through the aisles at Barnes & Noble in search of books I know to be plentiful at Elliott Bay and I come away wanting. No Davies, no Cheever, no Percy, no Marcus. Why, not even Catch-22 or The Brothers Karamazov, two classics that seem to have unforgivably slipped through the cracks of their shelves and mine. At one point I held Richard Ford's The Sportswriter in my hand. I put it back to browse some more and when I returned some time later, deciding that at the very least I could get that for now, it was nowhere to be found. I stormed out, no books in hand. Sure, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, the holidays scurried away leaving the literature section in something of a drought. Hopefully a restock is in order, or I'll have to shift back to Borders.

But seriously, I did stumble across a Colson Whitehead book of essays regarding New York titled, The Colossus of New York. Not sure if either Bryan or Louis have read this, but seeing as how Bryan is now unashamed to refer to himself as a "New Yorker" I figured this might be of interest. I read the introduction and skimmed (it's true!) through other portions with great delight. If I, who has passsed through New York only a handful of times, find the book of interest, I thought others here might feel even more strongly about it.

Also stumbled across a book called 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, or some such foolishness. It seemed decent. But really, is every novel by Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo worthy of being placed in a top 1001? 1001 isn't really a lot when you consider the list begins circa 600 BC with Aesop's Fables.

Wednesday, December 27

A good haul

On Monday morning a large cache of books was discovered beneath a tree off Lambert's Cove Road. Here is how the treasures were divided:

Books now in my possession:
Sixty Stories - Donald Barthelme
The Stories of John Cheever - John Cheever
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders
The Areas of My Expertise - John Hodgman
The Paris Review Ineterviews, Volume I
The Better of McSweeney's, Volume 1

Books for Mom:
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live - Joan Didion
Brick Lane - Monica Ali
The Echo Maker - Richard Powers

Books for Dad:
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines - Janna Levin
The Geographer's Library - Jon Fasman
Waiting for the Barbarians - J.M. Coetzee
The History of the Siege of Lisbon - Jose Saramago
Yiddish with George and Laura - Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman

Books for Brother:
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006
A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing)
100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest

What books did you all get? Louis, you get anything good?

Saturday, December 2

Books for the non-reader

I have this brother. Smart chap, a graduate of a fine Big Ten institution, a fan of many "literary films" and, from what I know, a generally thoughtful and soulful person. But you put a book of more than 200 pages in front of him and he'll act like a eight year old staring down a heaping pile of slimy lima beans. He ain't having it. The occasional exception to the rule seems to be the random sci-fi or fantasy novel--books that lay far outside the realm of my notable gift-selecting prowess. For years the only book that I gave him was a volume of Simpsons comics each Christmas. This went on for about six years until, with me in college and he in his mid-twenties, it just didn't feel right. I have since moved on to giving him the annual collection of Best Non-Required Reading, a gift he says he enjoys but one is never sure just how much of it he actually reads.

This year I have been giving much thought to what novels I might be able to give him that won't go unread. I have considered The Gunslinger, the first volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. People seem to like, but who knows, the only King book I have read is The Shining, an altogether different affair. Then there is Neal Gaiman's American Gods, a fairly literary novel with enough fantasy that its length might prove to be a non-issue. Also, I have considered Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, a humorous debut novel about a twenty-eight year-old slacker who takes a drug that cures his chronic indecision and soon finds himself romping about South America. While my brother might greet the humor and subject matter in Indecision warmly, I want not to have him think I am sending him some sort of not-so-veiled message about his own life--which would not be the case--so I have shied away from this one temporarily.

But, in general, what are some good books for the non-reader? Off the top of my head there are some obvious non-fictions like the work of Klosterman and Sedaris--breezy, fun books that seem to appeal to the well-read and unread alike. I struggle a bit more when trying to generate a list of novels. Perhaps this is because I am an elitist when it comes to the book gifts. Indeed, King seems rather too populist for my gift-giving sensibility. Something like Life of Pi is a swell choice, I think. And, while some skimmers might disagree, I believe the shorter novels of Murakami are a fine selection for a person such as my brother with an apparent taste for fantasy but an aversion to literature.

I could ramble on longer, but I come to you now from the communal computer in my apartment building and folks are waiting. If they only knew how urgent this Book-Loop correspondence was they would go upstairs, take a nap and give me more time, but no, they seem quite impatient.

Monday, November 6

Let's talk periodicals

No, the name of this blog is not Zine-Loop, but we should be open to the discussion of all things readable, whether it be books, magazines, skywriting, lost person notices on milk cartons, Marmaduke, graffiti scrawled on the side of speeding boxcars, and even an equation which governs particle settling velocity in fluid under laminar conditions tattooed on the arm of a confused engineer.

Two Book-Loop members who are not active contributors have expressed that they cherish their periodicals so much they have not the time for book reading. It's perfectly understandable. I now find myself in a situation with a new job and a plethora of magazine subscriptions (most of which came my way through gifts and free offers) and I worry that book time might be lacking. The larger issue facing me is that amongst my numerous periodical subscriptions there are only a few that I consider essential reading. I will probably subscribe to The Believer, The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated for the remainder of my life. Dime, ESPN The Magazine and Stuff are dying slow deaths. URB, Esquire, Wired, Time Entertainment Weekly are not likely to be renewed beyond their current run. Playboy is in limbo as well. The Economist is a new kid on the block and I look forward to the start of the free one year subscription I received in exchange for 900 or so Delta Sky Miles. The Paris Review and The Atlantic I enjoy reading, but I am not a subscriber. I think I'm saving those for my wizened, fireside-sitting, pipe-smoking years, which I plan to dive into somewhere in my mid-thirties.

What periodicals do you read? What periodicals do you recommend? What periodicals would you read if you had more time? What's the word on Mother Jones? I spent some time checking out the magnificent magazine collection at Elliott Bay this afternoon--a swell way to kill a rainy day while waiting on Pats/Colts--and was quite overwhelmed. I realize that the best way to find magazines you like is by reading magazines for yourself, but with so many hundreds of magazines out there I figured it would be neat to open up a little dialogue about the wonderful world of periodicals. I'm here to listen.

Friday, November 3


Especially for you, Ben, you would absolutely love it.

Friday, October 27

Pastoralia Ramblings

You might recall that my time with George Saunders was the literary highlight of my Bumbershoot experience in September. At that time I am fairly certain I was only familiar with the writer through an interview on The Sound of Young America and a discussion between he and Ben Marcus that is included in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. Saunders is a fascinating character. He has a B.A. in geophysical engineering, and worked in that field for about 15 years, picking up an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University along the way. He now teaches creative writing at Syracuse, and just this year he was awarded a 'genius grant' from the MacArthur Foundation and a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have just now gotten around to reading some of his short fiction. I picked up Pastoralia at the library earlier this week, and after reading the title story I remembered why I so much enjoyed hearing him read aloud nearly two months ago. There's a certain charm to his satire that I think is missing in the work of many others. I don't know if 'charm' is quite the right word, but there is an honesty and a playfulness to it all rather than a lurking coarseness and bitterness. Don't get me wrong, his writing can be quite dark, but it always seems to maintain a hint of optimism that is slightly antithetical to his reputation as a distopian writer. But perhaps not. Regardless, he is an original and important American writer. I recommend his work.

Listen to Saunders on The Sound of Young America (Begins at 22:05)

I have also been continuing my journey through the drug-, ego-, and testosterone-fueled history of 1970's American film in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. A little too gossipy for my tastes but a damn fun read. I wish I'd been making notes along the way because there are just too many great anecdotes to recount. One of my favorites involves the strategic drug use of the bat shit insane Dennis Hopper:
One director wouldn't use him after lunch, when the alcohol kicked in. Another knew that Dennis would grab whatever was around--uppers, downers, what have you--and worried that, say, if Dennis took one drug during a long shot in the morning and a different one during a close-up in the afternoon, the energy levels would be different, making it impossible to cut them together. The two men went through the script and agreed on what drug Dennis would use in each of his scenes. When Hopper got the next day's call sheet, there was a notation at the bottom indicating the appropriate drug.
I suppose this tidbit is of particular interest to me because it perfectly illustrates how, while the era is remembered for its freewheeling approach and active abandonment of Old Hollywood techniques, the people involved in these pictures were quite serious about their craft. I suppose that's obvious, you don't produce several of the greatest works in the history of film by simply ingesting drugs and letting the cameras role, but it's one of the major points that I take away from the book. Well, that and the understanding of how, like with so many great writers and musicians, the ego and ambition that fueled the work of, say, Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, created relationships with friends and lovers that were tumultuous at best. They were endlessly philandering, self-absorbed and destructive. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though these traits are mandatory for achieving greatness in the arts.

So how might this relate to the previous Book-Loop discussion regarding the acquisition of a writer's sometimes upsetting biographical details. Perhaps it's instructive that my new understanding of the salacious details of these filmmaker's private and professional lives has done little to weaken my appreciation of their work. If anything, reading the book has probably enhanced my appreciation of the films. My perception of Hollywood is that it's a seedy place--always has been. I expect bacchanalian excess and dirty double crossing. Not only do I expect it, but I think it adds to the legend and might even be an essential part of America's (dwindling) love affair with motion pictures. The written word is very different. Filmmaking is a group affair, vulnerable to in fighting, abuses of power and mutiny. Writing is a solitary act, it is personal. Why I place writers on a higher moral plane I cannot really say. I think it's mostly affect, but maybe it also comes from the (false?) idea that writing comes from the soul while movie making is one big put on--actors, costumes, make-up, sets, special effects, etc.--and even when it's a personal tale or a so-called auteur picture it lacks the one-on-one interaction that a book offers.

Ah, this post is a rambling mess. I seem to ramble much more on this blog than I do on my own. I'm not sure why, but I like it.

Friday, October 20

Winning excerpts

"Instead of sulking, [Manny Ramirez] was more likely to put his cell-phone camera down his pants, take a picture, and interrupt other players' interviews to show them the image. Kevin Millar, apparently, was not impressed. Once he walked over to a naked Ramirez, pointed at his groin and exclaimed, "Forty home runs and 140 RBIs, and with this penis!" - Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top

"[Bob Rafelson] was handsome in the Jewish way, a shock of dark brown hair over a high forehead, rosebud lips frozen in a permanent pout under a fighter's battered nose." - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Wednesday, October 11

Up from the ashes

After several weeks of literary dormancy today the gears in my brain strained into motion. Actually, they were humming from the get go. I woke up, grabbed José Saramago's Blindness and was enthralled right from page one. An incredible feeling after nearly a month without focus or patience. Whatever the reason (and I think I know it) I seem to be back to normal.

After breakfast I made my way to Elliott Bay Book Co. to do some browsing. I read the preface to Natural capitalism and very nearly bought it before having one of those little internal meltdowns where you decide that you must get out of the store as soon as possible because you simply do not possess the resources to procure even a single book, and if you stay much longer you will almost certainly wind up exiting the store with five. So I put it back and made my way to the door. A little book titled "Speech of Chief Sealth" caught my eye and I stopped to give its innards a once over. An elder lady crept up alongside me and leafed through a different Native American non-fiction. She wandered off just as four books indiscreetly tumbled from the shelf and onto the rustic wooden floor. I quickly made an effort to shepherd the lost books back to where they would be more comfortable. Once I had placed the books back neatly on the self the lady, offering a reaction sufficiently delayed so as to suggest an incertitude of cuplability where there truly was none, asked "Did I do that?" I responded, "Oh, no, I'm fairly certain it was gravity." I gave her a wry smile and once again made my way to the exit. Netted in once again, this time by an autographed copy of Michael Lewis's latest book, The Blind Side, my departure was delayed further. I soon spotted Feeding the Monster, which, were I of sound mind when it was released a few months back, I would have surely bought it the very day it came out. So I bought it.

Walking home I passed a smiley faced man handing out reading material on the street. 'Jesus Saves!' 'Go Vegetarian!' 'No on I-933!' I was not sure what he was distributing but I accepted his offering graciously. I made an attempt to read it. I could not. It was a blank sheet of white paper. All his papers were blank. The man is a genius! I went into a shopping center where I sat and read the introduction to Feeding the Monster. Upon leaving I passed the man again but declined his handout, telling him, "No thanks, I've already read it."

Friday, September 29

Recent Perusals

Well, we can add Swann's Way to the growing list of novels that I lack the wherewithal to navigate in my current mindstate. I am in a significant reading rut and have decided to forsake the novel and spend my time perusing some short story masters.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories - Flannery O'Connor
Sixty Stories - Donald Barthelme
Collected Stories - Isaac Babel
Selected Short Stories - Honoré de Balzac

Of the four I have to this point only completed a significant sample of O'Connor and Barthelme. This is my first experience reading either writer. "Grotesque" is the word that comes up again and again in discussion of O'Connor's work. Her stories are matter-of-fact and menacing in their portrayals of salvation. I am glad to be acquainted with her, and in awe of her ability to be so harmoniously dire and comedic. Barthelme is a writer of whom I could see the Book-Loop clan holding a mixed opinion. To me the man is downright brilliant. His short stories are brief, their relative simplicity belying an ingenuity of form. Why must "Postmodernist" be a pejorative label? But aside from the merits of his experimental style, Barthelme's stories are witty and far more playful in demeanor than the existentialists he is often lumped with. If a reader cannot delight in reading "Me and Miss Mandible" they should probably begin searching for a new hobby.

And yes, I am reading some non-fiction. On Mike's recommendation I picked up The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour Of Mankind's Greatest Invention at the library. Pretty self-explanatory from the title, and, let me tell ya, the story is more interesting than you might imagine and the writing is far less stilted than you might fear. I also got a dense looking tome called The History of the English Language, an acquisition made with much optimism that shall probably return to the library unread.

The Office's John Krasinski adapting David Foster Wallace story
Reimagining Madame Bovary 150 years after her birth
The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship
Can Men Write Romantic Novels?
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, by Nick Hornby

Tuesday, September 26

Monday, September 25


Awaken, Book-Loopers! I will shoulder some of the blame for the recent silence - The Plot Against America was more like The Plot Against Midnight, as every subsequent page brought me closer to sleepy time. I'm still toting the volume with me, but only for the nebulous purpose of returning it "when I get close to the library," a strategy that has already once led me to renew my three-week loan. I'm currently waist-deep in Operation Yao Ming for journalistic researc purposes, and after that, I think I'm going to explore the newest Michael Lewis work, The Blind Side, about the changing of the NFL under Lawrence Taylor (or something like that). That's right: it's sports book month here on the loop!

Thursday, September 14

Regarding Jack London

From "The Man Who Would Be Jack London" in the August 2006 issue of The Believer:
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, E. L. Doctorow pronounced London "the most widely read American author in the world." That's right. More than Twain or Hemingway or Melville. Something of a literary footnote in his own country, Jack London is considered an emblematic American author in Japan, Russia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The Call of the Wild has been translated into eighty languages, more than any other American work. An Albanian anthology of American literature pictures Jack London along with Mark Twain on its cover. A collection of London stories in Russian sold 200,000 copies in the first printing. On his deathbed, Lenin asked his wife to read him a Jack London story.
Who knew? Also, this man who readers of our generation (if they're anything like myself) know only from Call of the Wild, White Fang and perhaps To Build a Fire, wrote more than fifty books! This is a swell article that offers insight into a life that some would call "as romatic and ruggedly American as any novel ever written." We also encounter a rather comedic fellow who is a part-time Jack London impersonator, part-time hardware store manager.

H.L. Mencken, master of the hedged compliment, on London:
I have often argued that he was one of the few American authors who really knew how to write. The difficulty with him was that he was an ignorant and credulous man. His lack of culture caused him to embrace all sorts of socialistic bosh, and whenever he put it into his stories, he ruined them. But when he set out to tell a simple tale, he always told it superbly.

Spade Swann Bloom

Just to catch you up on things, my readings of both 1993 Was a Bad Year and City of Spades have been unsuccessful. With Bad Year I spent a few days reading and re-reading the first several pages. Nothing difficult to follow, nothing so beautiful that it demanded I linger, I just couldn't get beyond them. Whatever the reason I did not have the concentration for this book at this time--maybe it was too hopeless and not something I need to be reading right now. It is a very small book with fat print. I could read it in a about an hour. I could, but I couldn't. So, onto City of Spades. Not, as it turns out, "Britain's Catcher in the Rye. That label is designated for the second book in MacInnes's London Trilogy, Absolute Beginner. Meanwhile, this book, as the title not so subtly hints, is about London's influx of colonial Africans in the 1950s. With this one I made it to around page 50 before I decided that I was forcing the matter and I just needed to move on to Swann's Way. That's the thing, I should have read Swann's Way first. It has been sitting on my night stand waiting for me while I made these two futile attempts to read two books that I have only a mild interest in. I don't like giving up on books so early in the game but I've had some distractions and maybe Proust will allow me to focus.

I have also been hopping around Harold Bloom's Genius. It is a fun book in its own way. The manner in which Bloom has grouped the 100 writers and thinkers together into lustres makes the book easily navigable for someone like me who opts not to read all 814 pages in succession. The entries on each individual are brief, some of them providing an overview, others focusing on more specific qualities that Bloom finds most interesting. I have read so few of the works discussed in this book, but even without an intimate appreciation for many of the writers I am thoroughly enjoying the way in which Bloom makes connections between them, shaping in my mind a sort of outline for a family tree of poets, playwrights and authors. Inevitably it is Shakespeare who pops up again and again, but not always. Like the Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Genius is a book I will revisit often, whether it be for inspiration, edification or simple pleasure.

Wednesday, September 13

Quoting Davies

"Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best."

"The great book for you is the book that has the most to say to you at the moment when you are reading. I do not mean the book that is most instructive, but the book that feeds your spirit. And that depends on your age, your experience, your psychological and spiritual need."

Tuesday, September 12

Old School

No, not the Will Ferrell movie that made you giggle the first few times you watched it but has since faded into irrelevance. I speak now of Tobias Wolff's novel that goes by the same name. A sharply drawn picture of life at an almost absurdly literary boarding school. In a strange way I think this might be the first book that has made me feel at all disappointed that I did not have the opportunity to attend a prep school of this sort. I mean, they get visits from Robert Frost and Ayn Rand and (if not for illness) Ernest Hemingway! Heady stuff.

These visits represent the source of much of the book's drama. Each visit corresponds with a school-wide contest in which the visiting writer selects one student's work to be read aloud and published in the school's literary journal. Most important for the students, of course, is the fact that these legendary writers would be selecting them as the winner--in their minds paving the way for an inevitable life of literary fame. The Frost visit is humorous, as he selects a student's work that he believes is a clever parody of his own poetry. He accepts the piece as good-natured ribbing, even though the student's intention had been only to write something Frost would find beautiful.

Rand also selects a student's work in which she is able only to see herself. But the contest takes on a secondary importance, as Rand's speaking engagement destroys our protagonist's enjoyment of her work. Like many young scholars he reads The Fountainhead and becomes enthralled with Howard Roark's boldness and virtuosity. Then, in this case from Rand herself, he learns what the writer really had in mind and the idolatry quickly vanishes. I strongly recommend the Rand section for anyone who still clings to the misguided belief that her philosophy is worth a damn. Wolff's characterization of Rand is hilarious, and even if it is a little harsh I would say that it is fully deserved.

The climax of the tale coincides with the approach of Hemingway's visit. Some of the students pretend to dismiss Hemingway, but none of them are able to avoid ripping off his style. In an effort to channel Ernest's ability our aspiring writer takes up the practice of re-typing Hemingway's short stories. The strategy works, in a sense, but the outcome is not quite what the young lad had in mind--the fact that the story ends up being a little more like F. Scott than Ernest is the least of his concerns.

As for complaints, I shall now turn you over to Thomas Mallon of The Atlantic, who has captured my two central points quite crisply:
Old School's somewhat pedagogical nature inclines one toward a few schoolmasterish objections. Its gradual accrual (three episodes from it appeared in The New Yorker) may have lulled the author into writing a last chapter that, although a rattling good story, seems more like an appendage than a conclusion.... And let me say this, above all, Mr. Wolff: the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue is a ridiculous piece of postmodern pretentiousness that has no place in your book. Not when it can stand with the best of what some old boys (Louis Auchincloss, Richard Yates) have produced in a waning American genre.

Thursday, September 7

The Great American Novel

Great baseball satire, almost too light to write about. I read it in such a herky-jerky manner that I might have missed some stuff, but I doubt it.

I give it three PLDS games out of five.

Tuesday, September 5

Peak Oil

Being an environmental nerd (thus far mostly in theory - the practice is lacking, seeing as I spend a large portion of my time driving around LA), today's news of the oil deposit discovery down Mexico way got me thinking for a spell of black gold.

So far on Book-Loop it appears that the prevailing winds blow toward fiction. That's fine, but I am caught in a non-fiction spell that goes back 4 or 5 books or so and shows no obvious signs of letting up (the books at my bedside are What's the Matter with Kansas?, James Beard's Theory & Practice of Good Cooking, and The Joy of Sex, which I suppose you could consider fiction depending on the circumstances of the moment.

My question is, does anyone have any plans for non-fiction in the near future? If so, I would suggest a book on Peak Oil (which is exactly what it sounds like - the final peak in oil production. Ever.). I have not yet read a Peak Oil book, but I would like to. I was confronted most recently with the subject while reading an article in Harper's. Apparently, there is a lively Peak Oil community in the United States and I would assume around the globe. Peak Oil is not simply an inevitable event in the future, it is a movement of the present, populated by thinkers, crazies, scholars, business persons, and, well, anyone who has the ability to think critically about the consequences of a powerful, charging pattern of digging, pumping and burning that could competently serve as a shorthand for the recent history of human behavior.

This Harper's article included predictions, or rather meditations, of what life would become on an earth at Peak Oil, or on the immediate come-down. LTS mentioned thought experiments a while back. The thought experiment, or imagination experiment, of considering a realistic vision of an oil-dry planet is an intriguing exercise that probably is not undertaken enough outside the open discussion of a meeting of Peak Oilers. The scenarios are of course infinite, but some simple questions can be shocking if considered honestly.

What sort of war might we see over the last large deposit of oil on Earth? What might happen to our society if the price of gas rose to ten dollars per gallon over a period of ten years? The funny thing about thinking about this issue is that the only "what if?" in the scenario is the way in which the events of the peak and decline of oil production will occur. That they will occur is a plain fact.

Has short-sightedness always been a quality of the masses of humanity? I would think that the rapid pace of millennial (where are we, modern? Post-modern? I don't know these things) society would cause us to look ever farther into the distance since the consequences come at us faster and we will actually be around another 60 years or so to live more of them, supposedly. But, as a general observation, I feel that we are more short-sighted than ever in our hunger for progress.

Saturday, September 2

Happy Days

While we spend this Labor Day weekend feeling sad that Bryan will not be able to finish The Great American Novel, let us all be excited for me, who found a copy of Lydia Davis's award-winning translation of Swann's Way at the Seattle Public Library. Not only that, but also City of Spades, the first novel in Colin MacInes's London Trilogy ("Britain's Catcher in the Rye," says the March '06 issue of The Believer) and John Fante's 1933 Was a Bad Year. Yes, Book-Loop friends, between these books, last night's 826 benefit featuring Dave Eggers, John Hodgman, Sarah Vowell, and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), plus tomorrow's Bumbershoot fun with Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, Charles D'Ambrosio, Michelle Tea, The New Pornographers, Spoon, Common Market, Blue Scholars and so many more, it should prove to be a most stimulating Labor Day weekend for Book-Loop's Pacific Northwest Sector.

Friday, September 1


I forgot The Great American Novel at work yesterday, and I have only about 30 pages left, so it's kind of frustrating because I won't be back at work until Tuesday. In order keep things Roth-ing, I randomly picked up The Plot Against America from the library today. What has everyone heard? I'll probably forge ahead regardless, but I'm curious.

Tuesday, August 29

More Free Books!

Free Books! The antipodes of the super-deluxe editions that we secretly lust after but profess to despise.

And now we can hope to have more of them! I am a long time fan of Project Gutenberg, even if I haven't been a big time user. Whether or not you are familiar with it, I'm sure my fellow Book-Loopers can imagine the limitations of such an open source-style effort to publish works of literature in the public domain (don't quote me, but that's how I've always understood the 'Project'--not that the problems derive from the Project as much as from the books that have found their way into the public domain, especially if you think your copy of Proust is obsolete, Ben).

But perhaps help is on the way from Ben's good friends out in the Pacific Northwest! I saw this report on my homepage in regards to something called Google Book Search. I'm too lazy to try it out just now, but I'm hoping that when I look for it, it won't be hard to find.

According to the AP report: "Google's Book Search service is the product of its Books Library Project, which is digitizing books from major libraries around the world in order to make them searchable online. Its partners include the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, Oxford University, the University of California[,] the New York Public Library [and] a pilot project with the Library of Congress." (And look who leads the list! Lo and behold, it's the University of Michigan. I commend you, gentlemen, for having attended such a fine and forward-thinking institution of higher learning.)

Anyway, it's not much to go on, but I hope this means we can all look forward to a new era of free books on the internet. And in the meantime, Ben, if you're ever stranded on a desert island somewhere without your 1922 translation of Swann's Way, but with your laptop, a power source, and a strong enough wi-fi signal, you can still read your book, courtesy of Project Gutenberg--it will always have a place in my heart as my original source for free on-line literature.

Monday, August 28


This is a topic that I had been kicking around in my head last week. When Louis suggested subtly that the translation of Murakami's prose may have stunted them, the topic jumped back into my thoughts.

I have an old, used copy of Swann's Way that I have been thinking about reading. The other day I was in the book store when I noticed that each volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time is now available in a new translation. Not only a new translation, an award-winning translation that has received robust praise for numerous sources. The little staff recommendation note hanging below the new Swann's Way dismissed my poor old copy as anachronistic. I ventured to the library in the hope that I would find the updated version in their collection. Alas, their volumes of Proust are even more elderly than my own.

I suppose now is the time to ask, Has anyone read any Proust? Was it the updated translation or the 1922 translation? What did you think?

According to the blurbs, updated translations usually offer things like new life and improved fluidity of prose and access to subtle humor. For example, the 1996 translation of Magic Mountain is supposed to read far more easily than its predecessors, improving on their "stiff and forbidding" language.

The effectiveness of a translation is something that is apt to bother me so much while I am reading a book that I'll attempt to expel it from my thoughts and just pretend that it was originally written in English. But it's a HUGE factor for any book that one reads in translation. Thankfully most translators are amazingly talented. Any good writer will say that each and every word within all of their stories has been meticulously selected. Every word that sits on the page sits their actively, with purpose, they do not reside simply to fill some quota. To take each of the words, and the strings of words that they produce, and bring them into a new language is nearly as meticulous as writing the book in the first place. I just don't know how they do it. Bravo, translators.

Has anyone had an experience where they read a book they simply could not make it through, only to find themselves reading a different translation of that same book later on and enjoying it? My hunch is that many of the differences would be too subtle to swing one's appreciation so wildly from one pole to the other. As an amateur in the world of letters I would guess that updated translations are best suited for those who wish to expand an existing appreciation for a work. But odds are I am wrong. In fact, I know I am wrong. So wrong that I don't think I'll ever read my 1922 translation of Swann's Way. If a better translation exists, why bother?

Another thought, Why are the new translations always found in super deluxe editions? Yeah, the words are new, but why must that require paper of the highest quality and snazzy design work? Damn publishers.

Friday, August 25

What makes a book good?

While waiting for a top-secret, aka public, meeting of the New York Inquirer to begin, I cruised the Barnes and Noble a block away. It was raining, so I took my sweet time checking out the staff recommendations on the first floor (the escalator was out). On each shelf — fiction, non-fiction, classics, New York, "interesting," etc. — I saw two or three books that I have read.

My responses intrigued me. For instance, I saw The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits, a book I did not enjoy while I read it - but its themes are burnt into my head. I also saw two David Sedaris books, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, books I remember loving, but I can't recall a single episode from either of them. Sedaris may be a bad example, because his writing is purposely disposable, but what to make of Julavits? My experience with her book is almost the opposite of what I'm going through now with The Great American Novel. For whatever reason, I'm kind of having a rough go with it, but I only have good things to say about it, whereas I plowed through TEOLB despite my disdain for a lot of what was going on. The tricky part is that I remember a lot of it, and I would say it's a good book if you want to see the effects of shame. In some ways, it's kind of like Anchorman. I like quoting Anchorman, but I've never found it particularly funny when I watch it. That's obviously a strike against it, but with its sticking power, how big of a strike is it?

Wednesday, August 23

Do you like to know your authors?

The question popped into my head this afternoon as I enjoyed a short story from Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes. I have read a handful of Murakami's novels over the past several years but it occurred to me while I was a reading a story titled, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning", that I know absolutely nothing about the man. Then it occurred to me that I don't want to know anything about the man. I'm comfortable with the relationship I presently have with Murakami and his writing and I do not feel the need to push the boundary of my understanding.

It was only after I had read a fair amount of Saul Bellow's work that I began to make an effort to learn something about his life. Even then, my interest was prompted by a friend who had some less than glowing appraisals of Bellow the human being. My inquiry revealed that Bellow had a reputation as a misogynist, a bit of a racist and a part-time neoconservative with a distate for counter-culture. Disappointing revelations indeed, but with my fondness for Bellow's writing already well-established, I have been able to navigate around these unfortunate bits of information and separate the man from his fiction.

I remember distincly an incident when things did not work out quite so neatly. It was during my tenure at an educational software company in Boston. I was on my lunch break, eating lunch in the office break room. I was sitting there, munching on carrots, reading Spring Snow, when the rude and annoying project manager with outrageous halitosis joined me at the table. She noticed my book with some excitement and ventured into a lecture on Yukio Mishima's ritual suicide. When she was through I returned to my desk rather disturbed, and when the work day was done I returned Spring Snow to the library. I wasn't able to separate the man from his fiction because I was not given the opportunity to wander through his writing on my own. I was frustrated by the information I had attained--at least in part because of its source--and so I gave up on the book. I'll get back to it someday soon.

In many cases learning about the life of an artist can enhance one's appreciation for that artist. Unfortunately not all artists are admirable beings, and more than a few have some serious skeletons in their closets--one need not look any farther than the recent news of Günter Grass's secret SS past. Distinguishing the artist from the person behind the art is often easier said than done. I am unsure about what the role of the reader should be in terms of investigating the life of the writer. In most cases I try to avoid the biographical details altogether, but part of me thinks that it is the obligation of the discerning reader to dig into the details and attempt to find out what it is that makes a writer tick.


Sunday, August 20

The Intuitionist

There it is, printed right on the front cover: “The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” That’s impossibly high praise for any novel to live up to. I did not quite realize what I was getting myself into with this surreal, fantasy noir (some even classify it as science fiction) and it took me some time to catch my bearings. Once I got in step with the rhythm of Colson Whitehead’s world (perhaps New York City of the mid-20th century) I enjoyed The Intuitionist.

The grand metaphorical relationship between elevator and upward racial progress is initially rather obvious. However, as the story develops this metaphor becomes cumbersome and difficult to uncurl. The fact that it is omnipresent throughout the tale does not help matters much. But rather than getting bogged down with my struggles to interpret Whitehead’s Big Idea, I delighted in becoming acquainted with some of the smaller aspects of the story.

Particularly fascinating to me was the character Pompey. It is Pompey, the only other black member of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, who Lila Mae blames for being directly responsible for her setup. She thinks him an Uncle Tom and is suspicious of him from the start. The lone black figures in the office are adversarial and impersonal rather than partners on the rise up.

I enjoyed the way in which Lila Mae slips into the party of co-workers undetected simply by wearing a maid costume. Her drunken co-workers, probably more than willing to look right through her anyway, do not notice Lila Mae at all in her simple disguise. Whitehead underlines the alienation of Lila Mae perfectly in this segment.

Also of interest is the fact that the most successful black character in the tale, James Fulton, had the ability to pass as a white man. I point it out because this idea is the central focus of two celebrated novels in the African-American literary canon that I highly recommend, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing.

The one major gripe I have with the book is the fact that Lila Mae is as cardboard a character as I have come across in some time--though I'd be willing to entertain the idea that this was intentional. I consider it rather adventurous for a young man to pen his first novel with a female character as the central figure. I know some writers who would find this opinion laughable, but I think it takes a special talent to pull it off. Now, obviously Whitehead is an immensely skilled and witty writer, extraordinary sentences abound throughout The Intuitionist. I only wish he were as generous with Lila Mae’s characterization as he is with his prose.

Bryan, you mentioned that I wouldn’t believe what you were doing when you read this book. Were you investigating an elevator catastrophe cover-up for the Queens Chronicle? Do tell.

This book is certainly ripe for discussion. Let us proceed.

Saturday, August 19

A book-loop suggestion

Despite MJA's noble idea of trading books - which was the impetus to get this wonderful site started, so it remains a wonderful idea - I don't foresee much of that happening on this site. So besides discussing books we have read independently, what could we do? Glad I asked! We could have the Book-Loop Book-Club! Or something to that effect. I got the idea when Louis and Ben were discussing Cloud Atlas and they abandoned ship because most of us hadn't read it. Why don't we pick a book every other month, or every three months, and plow through it together, posting our thoughts once we've all finished (or in real time, if everyone's got to a certain spot)? I say every 60 or 90 days at least so we have time to a) decide on the book, making sure it's one we all want to read and b) read other books in the interim. Since this is all very non-binding, you can ditch the book at any time, but it might be fun to do this. It also might be fun with especially long books, as we could give ourselves more time and plow through them together (I know this has been done online with Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow, I remember Moacir telling me about it in college), and take them up chapter by chapter. In short, we could go back to school. Only we're smarter now.

I think it's at least worth a try...

Monday, August 14

Mitchell favorite to land Booker literary prize

That's my boy!

Here is the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Black Swan Green seemed to be met with a cooler reception by British critics than American critics (small sample size, I know) and yet it is now the front runner for the Booker.

Critics who reacted negatively towards Black Swan Green seem to view it as a step back for Mitchell. While it is certainly not as daring as either Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten in terms of toying with notions of time, setting, reincarnation, etc., or experimenting with interlinked stories featuring disparate narrative voices, it is far from a standard coming-of-age novel. In Black Swan Green we find Mitchell focusing on a very particular moment in time (Cold War England of 1982) a very particular place (Black Swan Green) and a very particular person (Jason Taylor). While not as grandiose as his past efforts, I hardly see this more microscopic focus as a step backwards. Rather, I think one could argue that in abandoning some of his tricks and telling a far more measured tale we see Mitchell maturing and bringing his writing to an even higher level.

One thing I am a little bummed about upon seeing the cover of the Black Swan Green U.K. edition for the first time is the fact that all of Mitchell's novels feature more interesting covers on the U.K. editions. See for yourselves:

U.K. Black Swan Green
U.S. Black Swan Green

U.K. Cloud Atlas
U.S. Cloud Atlas

U.K. Ghostwritten
U.S. Ghostwritten

Now, obviously the cover art is a rather inconsequential matter, but it's interesting to note that Black Swan Green is the first of Mitchell's novels that has not seen the inside of the U.S. version differ significantly from that of the U.K. version. In his first three novels the British terms (boot, lift, chips etc.) and phrases (lord only knows) were edited out and replaced by more commonly American-speak. But with Black Swan Green, as with many coming-of-age tales, the slang and local peculiarities of the town are an essential component to the story, so the words remained unchanged.

Sunday, August 13

Did the novel's ending make him uncomfortable?

"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."

Bush reads Camus's 'The Stranger' on ranch vacation
Why is George Bush Reading Camus?
Honey, I Read "The Stranger"!

Saturday, August 12

More Musings on Turgenev (et al.)

It might mean exceeding our Book-Loop quota on this writer and my 'seriousness' quota for the month, but in my defense, I did arrive late to this party.

I actually finished Fathers and Sons the other day, and after that, a few sketches from Turgenev's Hunter’s Notebook. As regards their artistic and aesthetic merit, I am only qualified to bow in deepest reverence. After all, Turgenev’s writing met with Flaubert’s approval, and Flaubert himself found that hard to come by. In any case, I was more naturally interested in the moral, political, and economic dynamics at work beneath the surface of Turgenev’s realism, and not just for their distinctly Russian character. In particular, I found myself reading his writings as a profound meditation on human ‘happiness,’ as is possible with most great works of literature.

In this case, it seems for Turgenev, and perhaps equally for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, that ‘happiness’ is something reserved for the blessedly simple (e.g., Turgenev’s Fenichka or the peasants sketched in his Hunter's Notebook; likewise Tolstoy’s Gerasim or Dostoevsky’s Alyosha K.) and possibly also those fortunate enough to be ‘saved’ among the well-to-do (e.g., if one can separate the tragic from the optimistic, the ‘happy endings’ in Fathers and Sons; likewise in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina). To be sure, for Turgenev, salvation would appear to lie upon the more secular road of love, nature, and beauty—which might help explain his popularity in France—whereas Tolstoy and Dostoevsky tend to preach more transcendental ideals. This is not my main concern, however. Instead, what of the people who take neither road? Utter hopelessness, it would seem. (I speak only for myself, of course, but air these doubts on the chance that other Book-Loopers might offer sympathy or, better, insights.) I consider myself neither blessedly simple nor avowedly spiritual and certainly not well-to-do. What must I conclude? Am I to be Turgenev's Bazarov or perhaps the anonymous ‘Hamlet’ from his Sketches? Am I to be Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov or, worse, his ‘Underground Man?’

Of course, these great writers can be seen as leading by their own examples, and perhaps my fellow Book-Loopers are fortunate enough to have a creative genius of their own with which to escape such a nihilistic fate. For my part, I laugh at the lot left me by these great Russian writers, but I will also, now and again, fret whether there is nothing more to do than that. Obviously, I would be most eager to hear alternative interpretations, as I will be the first to admit to the tenuous and tendentious nature of my own. I also second the sentiment of other Book-Loopers that these writers are especially worthy of consideration.

You think you know a guy...

My plans to read The Tin Drum have been put on hold. Perhaps forever. It seems Günter Grass was in the SS. Sure this news doesn't alter anything that exists on the page, but it makes the idea of reading Grass pretty damn creepy to me. Has anyone read any Grass?
It was Grass first and foremost who insisted the Germans “come clean” about their history and that his own generation should not try to pose as “victims” of Hitler’s National Socialist ideology. Now the great advocate of facing unpalatable truths has lived up to his own standards, but a little late.
I just came across this quote that takes on new light:
"Believing: it means believing in our own lies. And I can say that I am grateful that I got this lesson very early." - Günter Grass

Grass says literary reputation hurt by SS admission
Storm grows over Grass's belated SS confessions
Grass to retain Nobel despite row
John Irving defends author Guenter Grass
Grass' autobiography selling fast amid SS furore

Friday, August 11

Parents and Books

Until the time I was about sixteen I held the horribly sexist belief that my father was a literary man and my mother just read silly detective novels. In some ways it wasn’t really my fault. The image I had of my father sitting on the couch, listening to Bach with a copy of The Magic Mountain in his lap and a bottle of Drambuie close by was not that far from reality. Though, in a strange way I think I somehow crafted this image of my father around the person that I thought he wanted to be rather the person he actually was.

I viewed my mother as the person who kept the house in order, broke up fights between my brother and I, and sometimes snuck off to read escapist mystery stories. Again, this image was not far from reality, but in this case I didn’t seem to take into account the person I thought my mother wanted to be—I had no idea what she wanted to be, my view of her was too narrow. My mother struggled to work books into her busy schedule and opted for quick escapism because that was the best therapy after the many hectic days. My father struggled to work his kids into his busy schedule and opted for classical music and literature as a way to escape from a different sort of reality.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times on my blog, one of the great joys of my maturity has been the discovery that my father and I share similar taste in both films and books. What I have failed to mention is the growing relationship between my mother and I that is based on talking about films and books. While my father and I share a similar fascination with figures like Kafka, Hesse, Bergman and Buñuel, we very rarely, if ever, discuss their work. Meanwhile, my mother and I have shared many enjoyable phone conversations recently about the films I’ve been watching and the books I’ve been reading. I introduced her to David Mitchell’s novels and she’s taken a great interest in them. When I was home around Christmas we had a long discussion about Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly that I will not soon forget. Just the other day we chatted about Joan Didion.

Through these conversations I have learned a tremendous amount about my mother. It saddens me that it has taken so long for me to connect with my mother in this way. It was always just kind of accepted that my dad was the renaissance dude and we would defer to him on most things cultural. But the fact is that while my father has a tremendous memory for character and plot, he rarely seems willing to share his honest opinion on books. With some coaxing I’ve seen it done, but I’m hardly the person that should be coaxing others to open up. When I read my father’s copies of his favorite books I invariably find several pages bookmarked. I find myself wanting to know why and I try to figure it out on my own. I am rarely able to get inside of his head, and I rarely ask him to let me in.

These days my mother is the literary one and my father is the mystery. My parents haven't changed (at least not in any fundamental way) my approach has changed. I am no longer a simple observer of my parents' images, I am now an active participant in the decoding of those images.

(You know, I’m not sure whether this type of thing is of interest to Book-Loopers. It was sort of caught in-between this blog and the other one so I just deposited it here. I apologize if I have bored you.)


Surprisingly little is known about this member of the Book-Loop’s 2nd ever semi-annual class, but then again, there is surprisingly little to know. Fatalism becomes him; that much is clear. He is also a chronic sufferer of the ‘human condition,’ enjoys wild speculation on ‘the value of truth,’ and yet thinks himself healthily skeptical of ‘mere words.’ It is probably safe to conclude from these scant facts that he is an arrogant prick. Consistent with this last point, he recently determined that he prefers inverted commas to quotation marks. He is currently looking for a new place to live and new books to read. He would happily provide a list of favorite writers and thinkers but figures it will be painfully obvious to Book-Loopers before long where it is he is ‘coming from.’ More than anything else, however, he his very happy to be in the company of such illustrious men, and could only further wish for the company of some illustrious women.

King of the Jews

I just finished King of the Jews by Leslie Epstein (Theo pere). There cover of my copy is littered with praise for the book, most of it calling the novel the only important work of Holocaust fiction to that point. It was published in the early 80's. It was well-written but didn't blow me away; however, it's the best look inside the life of Jews during the Holocaust that I've encountered, as opposed to their deaths (Schindler's List) or their individual fights for survival (The Pianist), even if the fight to survive obviously permeated the book. The surprising aspect of the book is its optimism: the main character, I.C. Trumpelman, refuses to fight the Germans for fear of getting his whole ghetto deported to a death camp, and constantly preaches to his skeptical neighbors that working with the occupiers is better for the Jews in the long run. As President of the local Judenrat, or Jewish Council, in the Balut ghetto, Trumpelman radiates a confidence that doesn't extend to some of the Balut's younger residents, who rebel against him and the Germans; somehow, he holds the Balut together longer than any of the other Polish ghettos. The general optimism was a fresh take, and I think was the reason the book is well-regarded - I enjoyed it for that reason, but couldn't escape the fact that it was obviously certainly fantasy, even if I wished it wasn't.

I give it three sad things out of five.

Thursday, August 10

Finding George Orwell in Burma

I was sitting in the park enjoying the sterling 80-degree weather the other day. I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma and enjoying it quite thoroughly. Then a crow shat on my knee. The poo fell from high above with much velocity and dribbled down my leg. I stopped reading and scurried off to the bathroom to clean myself.

The reason I mention my plight with the poo is because I think it relates to colonialism. Big fat cawing crows fly in from elsewhere and perch high above the citizenry. They then proceed to shit on the citizenry without pause. Once they have done all they can, they fly away home leaving a mess so great that efforts to clean it up are almost futile. Colonialism: The shit stain that won’t go away.

Anyway, my inane analogy aside, this is a fascinating little book. Writing under the assumed name of Emma Larkin (using her real name would spell doom for her friends in Burma and would make any return trips to the country quite dangerous) an American journalist based in Bangkok authored this peculiar combination travelogue and literary criticism. George Orwell's connection to Burmas was quite deep, he was born in colonial India, was stationed in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, later wrote a novel called Burmese Days about his experience in Burma, died in 1950 while in the process of writing a novella about “how a fresh-faced young man was irrevocably changed” after his time in Burma and, most importantly, modern-day Burma shares many characteristics with Orwell’s two most famous books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There is an overwhelming Big Brother presence in Burma, and Larkin encounters people who are fearful of having conversations with her in teashops, concerned that an informant could be lurking. Larkin altered most of the names used in the book, even several of the locations, in an effort to the spare the well-being of those she spoke with. The newspapers feature a ridiculous collection of stories about government officials traveling to and fro while failing to mention practical matters like a fourfold increase in train fares. In an effort to conceal bad news the government makes all news hard to come by. Even the Buddhist monks are controlled by the government, and their large influence is used to help keep people in step with the police state’s policies. Burma is second only to Afghanistan in the amount of heroin it produces and this heroin is predictably used to deepen the pockets of government officials while the masses struggle.

The response of a Burmese man when asked by Larkin why the people appear so carefree despite the conditions within the oppressive police state: “Burma is like a women with cancer, he explained. She knows she is sick, but she carries on with her life as if nothing is wrong. She refuses to go to a doctor for treatment… She talks to people they talk to her. They know she has cancer and she knows she has cancer, but nobody says anything.”

Larkin does a good job of giving a feel for how tyrannical the Burmese government is but I wish she had delved a bit further into her analysis of Orwell’s writing. Too often her discussion of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed like an afterthought. She sprinkled the book with little ancillary tidbits that never go beyond a most basic understanding of Orwell’s writing. But I found the book in the travel literature section and travel literature it is. Pretty good, too.

Wednesday, August 9

Loopers, ahoy!

Hi everyone, specifically Nick, Rafe, and LTS. You three should each create one post with your name as the title, and then I (or someone) will make the sidebar link to your profile. This post will be your profile which you can change at will. As long as you don't change the title of the post, the link will operate nicely.

Meanwhile, I've been busy battling Tally Hall and LA sewage, so I have not been Looping lately. Rest assured that will be rectified, though I wither a bit in the shadow of the eloquent and verbose actual writers in the Loop. Inspiration, not intimidation, I must remember.

An old man told me, "Your days are for running, and your nights are for dancing until it is day."

A "Manifestering" Bore--With Two Literary Selections

Why do I put myself in awkward positions like this? Bryan fires off a couple of innocuous posts, and before I know it, I am staring at a blank text field, wondering what the point of it all is. But that’s sort of like reading a book, now, isn’t it? Sort of, anyway. Well, you know, someone makes an innocuous recommendation or two, and before I know it, I am staring at a text field, not-so-blank, of course, but still wondering what the point of it all is. So why do I put myself in awkward positions like this? Well, why do you, my new Book-Loop friends?

Since you are all veteran Book-Loopers, I shall presume that you will not mistake my bad writing for pompously rhetorical pseudo-profundity, but rather as a putting forth of a sincere, if misguided and naïve, question. If Ben and Bryan’s talents can be taken as representative of the Loop’s membership, then I should note that, unlike the rest of you, I am not a writer—a thousand times, no!—and so do not find amongst my natural capacities pithy blurb-writing. Alas, I am but a lowly, unrepentant reader. Thus, it is only fitting that I resort to borrowing, as a reader must, from all that he has read, to posit an answer to my own question.

So why do I put myself in awkward positions like this? For the sake of ‘Truth and Beauty!’ my friends! How about it? Three cheers and hip-hip-hooray? Of course, this is only one way I have seen it written, and for my dollar, ‘Truth and Pleasure!’ would be better. Okay, so nothing earth shattering here and you probably didn’t need my 500 words on the subject (at first I wrote, ’500 rods’—-funny that, since it must be like a punishment!), but at least this way I’ve been up front about my reasons for joining your club. Thanks for having me!

As for some books (since that’s what you are all here for), while anyone would profit from Robertson Davies’ advice as found on the Book-Loop homepage, I think that they would profit doubly in respect to Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. An intelligent blurb would say something about a deep, if latent, ambivalence running through the work, which neatly contrasts the “good” and “bad” of the chivalric code with what Twain insinuates is the moral vacuum of the industrial revolution. A responsible reviewer would add some biographical detail (which I remember finding in the prefatory material in the Penguin Classic I was reading a few months back) about Twain’s ruinous attempts to commercialize an automatic typesetting machine in the years during which he conceived of and wrote the book. I should also add that the book was very funny to me at the time. (Again, “Truth and Pleasure”—because one is less fun without the other.)

As for “non-fiction” (or is it a “wildcard”?), I mention Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, another book I read in high school without really understanding. (My best stab at a blurb: “Wonderfully provocative stuff from a master of the genre!”) While I am not especially interested in harping on Bloom’s biographical details (Bellow’s Ravelstein would be the definitive, if unauthorized, source, with the added attraction of being a novel by a “master” of the “genre”), the biographical detail on our Book-Loop colleague Bryan is that he once attended Bloom’s precious bastion of “human excellence,” the University of Chicago, so he can tell you just how crazy these academic types can be. Still, in this case, I would argue Bloom was crazy in an important way, and yet perhaps some of you would see it differently. A polemic on the value of canonical literary texts—among many other things, of course—is perhaps worth a discussion amongst us Book-Loopers at some point is all I would suggest.

PS: Bryan, does Infinite Jest make any further literary allusions beyond the title to the Bard's play?

Alright, Book-Loopers...

Let's get some activity going here. Let's hear everyone's favorite fiction work, non-fiction work, and a wild card, which you can use to talk about anything. I'll go first.

Fiction: Infinite Jest
I've read better novels than Infinite Jest, but the fact I finished the fucking thing makes me put it here: I still consider it an achievement. That said, it's a great novel, and I remember the details of it vividly even though I read it 8 years ago. It follows three stories concurrenly, if not temporally. The first is the story of young Hal Incandenza, a pot-addled teenager enrolled at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, which is run by his mother, Avril, after the father's suicide. The second story is tha of ex-con Don Gately, who lives in a halfway house just down the hill from the Academy, and the third is a conversation between a wheelchair-bound assassin and somebody else on the American-Canadian border. Yep, it's a riot. On top of the 1100 pages of text, there are 100 pages of footnotes. This book is kind of like an acid trip in that I don't think I have the time and energy for it now, but I did back then, and I'm better for it. A really suberb experience.

Non-Fiction: The Power Broker
Quite simply the greatest book I have ever read. In recording the story of Robert Moses, New York's Parks Commissioner-turned-Czar, Robert Caro won a Pulitzer Prize and essentially wrote the post-Tammany Hall history of New York City. I would definitely say it helped to read the book while living in the city, just because every single part of the city, and how it was created, is discussed in the book, which like IJ is over 1000 pages. The amount of research is simply staggering, and it's baffling to think Caro wrote three (!) of these books on Lyndon Johnson, but that may be overkill. Maybe I'll get to them and like them more. But for now, this is the one.

Wild Card: Crappy Books
Yes, I could have gone with some Gabriel Garcia Marquez or some shit like that, but why? On occasion, I read crappy Robert Ludlum novels like The Prometheus Deception, which itself was a running joke between myself and BAG. While the plots of these books are standard (thirty-to-fourtysomething white hero, unnecessarily hot female along for the ride, predictable plot twist), it would be wrong to think you can't learn something by reading them. They're page-turners, which means they're almost uniformly well-written; they may be uninspired, but great ideas alone won't get you into Barnes and Noble. You need to keep people's attention, and I find I learn something about reading - which helps my writing - by tearing one of those books apart, and it only takes a couple hours. And there's guns and sex and stuff, which is fun.

Saturday, July 29

Robert Moses: The Original B-Boy

Well, not exactly. In fact not at all, though Mr. Moses does hold a rather ignominious position in the annals of hip-hop. In 1959 New York Parks Commissioner Moses (otherwise known as The Power Broker--one of Book-Loop pal Bryan's favorite books) commenced work on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, laying the foundation for hip-hop in the Bronx. You see, the expressway tore apart neighborhoods and led to the departure of numerous middle class families. As these middle class inhabitants left, many of the Bronx’s businesses followed. What remained was a community consisting largely of struggling black and Hispanic families. As the situation in the Bronx grew increasingly dire gang activity and drug use became increasingly widespread. As a response to the desperation facing young people living in the South Bronx during the 1970s, the hip-hop movement emerged.

As I read Can't Stop Won't Stop I have found myself struck by how a movement that was so vital, so potent in its nascent stages, has now devolved into the current celebration of all things extravagant and dispensable. Certainly there are those who still pay homage to the roots of hip-hop in their own way, but these are a small minority when one considers who's getting airplay and who’s garnering platinum plaques. The great thing about a lot of popular hip-hop in the early days is that it was party music with a social message appended--Afrika Bambaataa's motto of "Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun" really stood for something. Why is it that now it seems the songs must be one or the other, conscious or crunk? It’s really a shame, as it confines the power of the genre.

I’m making my way through Can't Stop Won't Stop incredibly slowly, which surprises me, I thought I would devour it. It’s a pretty dense book and I've been reading it in fits and starts, distracted by other books along the way. Although it is quite thorough and exceedingly well researched, Can't Stop Won't Stop somehow manages to be clear and concise, offering an insightfulness that--unfortunately--you wont find in some widely read hip-hop publications. If you’re curious about the history of hip-hop this is THE book. I'll likely comment on this book further as I make my way through it--especially when I get to the Native Tongues part.

Thursday, July 27

Facing the Congo:
A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness

It's funny that Bryan just completed Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, for I have just finished Jeffrey Tayler's Facing the Congo. Bryson's book is about his attempt to hike the 2,100 miles of Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine, while Tayler's book chronicles his attempt to become the first man since Henry Stanley in the mid-19th century to travel the length of the Congo River between Kinsangani and Kinshasa.

In some ways Tayler is the anti-Bryson, filling his prose with sober, severe language and almost never even cracking a smile. On the other hand, Bryson doesn't make trips that force him to be confronted with Mobutu's treacherous military men, the threat (real or imagined) of cannibals, or the dangerous desperation of otherwise decent people.

One wonders whether Tayler would have even made it safely from Brazzaville to his boat journey's starting point in Kinsangani had he not mysteriously won the admiration and assistance of one of Mobutu's colonels. The Colonel, a corrupt fellow like any other of Mobutu's officers, asks for nothing in exchange for providing Tayler with safe passage on his barge. It seems as though the Colonel is amused by Tayler's presence, not only because he is about to embark on an insane quest, but because he is a white man whose aim does not include the economic pillaging of the Congolese.

Though Tayler was not traveling along the Congo to exploit the riches of its natural resources, as I read the book I could not help but think there was still something rather off-putting about an American writer making this superfluous voyage through a country ravaged by colonialism, civil war, Mobutu, starvation, malaria and the continued crippling economic effects of the white world's exploitation. At one point during a particularly hopeless portion of the trip, Tayler acknowledges my concern: "I found myself stung by my failure and trying to deny what I would later come to see as obvious: that I had exploited Zaire as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemma."

Issues of propriety aside, the book is well written and contains several passages that rank amongst the most gripping I've ever read. I recommend this book, and not just to fans of travel literature. Tayler does a decent job of outlining some of the issues facing Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) during the late 90's, but I think he falls short when he is so focused on the completion of his journey that he fails to develop a strong relationship with his African traveling partners. But, given the stress of his trip, it's hard to be too critical of the man's social skills, and perhaps I should only praise him for making it home alive--no matter how frivolous his journey was.

Tuesday, July 25

I live!

I apologize, if only slightly, for the delinquency. I just finished Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, which is appropriately Bryson-esque - that is, funny, pithy, and heartfelt - and will make you want to go camping. I'm sorting through a bevy of baseball books for a possibly publishing project but I think will move onto The Great American Novel after that. I'm no pinko.

Thursday, July 20

Quoting Turgenev

"Nothing is stronger in the world ... and weaker—than a word!"

"Weak people never put an end to things themselves—they always wait for the end."

"Weak people in their mental colloquies, eagerly make use of strong expressions."

Sunday, July 16

Recent Readings

I recently finished Philip Roth's The Great American Novel. If you're a fan of baseball, literature and laughs then this is a must read. If you're not a fan of those things then you're clearly a communist and Book-Loop will not refrain from naming your name. I thank Louis, a friend to Book-Loop, for the most thoughtful recommendation.

I've since moved onto The Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev. This book is, as the name of the author might imply, altogether different from Hemingway's Sherwood Anderson parody of the same name. It is curious to me that Hemingway would title his essentially American burlesque after a story by one of the Russian masters. If you have any information on this please do tell. Perhaps as I get a bit deeper I'll find some reasoning (it's quite a small book, so that could come momentarily), At any rate, Turgenev's Torrents is a pretty standard love tale. It's not written with the same elegance as Fathers and Sons but it's still quite good.

It's funny how I have come to read the two Torrents. When my father visited Seattle he saw that I had just read Fathers and Sons. He said the only Turgenev he had read was a wonderful love tale by the name of The Torrents of Spring. While touring the Seattle Public Library together he suggested we find it. We could not, but we did find the Hemingway work of the same name. We looked for the Turgenev at Elliot Bay Book Company here in Seattle and then at Powell's in Portland. No luck at either cavernous locale. Now, my father is getting on in years and I just assumed that he had confused one book with another--though mixing up Hemingway with Turgenev seems odd for a well-read being of any age or mental capacity. When my father left town I went back to the library and read Hemingway's Torrents just for kicks. It was fun, if dated. A few weeks ago when I visited home my father gave me a copy of Turgenev's Torrents that he had purchased for me. It seemed as though he had made it his mission get me the book after the initial failure in Seattle and Portland. Thoughtful man, my father.

My big brother gave me a crisp $100 bill for my birthday last week. I used the money to purchase seven books (he told me to buy music, but fuck him). Here is what I bought:

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Blindness by José Saramago
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
The White Album by Joan Didion

Wednesday, July 12

We do have a fourth member

His name is Nick and he does not have a computer. Recently he has read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which I gather taught him a little something about the sad realities of America's overwhelming economic and political might, and Freakonomics, which I gather taught him something about sumo wrestling and real estate, among other things. He enjoyed both books and is well aware of the fact that they represent some of the final pleasure reading he will engage in for quite some time. In September he will become consumed by med school reading and will likely retreat to his hermitic undergraduate ways. Bless you for heading back to Colorado to appease your soul before shit hits the fan, Nick.

Nick Hornby on Freakonomics in the June/July issue of The Believer:

Freakonomics ocassionally hits you a little too hard over the head with a sense of its own ingenuity. "Now for another unlikely question: what did crack cocaine have in common with nylon stockings?" (One of the things they shared, apparently, is that they were both addictive, although stockings were only "practically" addictive, which might explain why there are comparatively few silk stocking-related drive-by shootings.) The answer to the question of whether mankind is innately and universally corrupt "may lie in... bagels." (The dots here do not represent an ellipsis, but a kind of trumpeting noise.) Schoolteachers are like sumo wrestlers, real estate agents are like Ku Klux Klan, and so on. I enjoyed the book, which is really a collection of statistical conjuring tricks, but I wasn't entirely sure of what it was about."

If Nick (not Hornby, our Nick) were here to speak for himself he would probably say that that last sentence summed up the telephone conversation between he and I regarding Freakonomics.

Monday, June 26

Garcia Marquez hometown holds vote to change name


ARACATACA, Colombia (Reuters) - The people of Aracataca, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born and first heard the ghost stories that would inform the "magical realism" of his novels, decide on Sunday whether to change the town's name to honor him.

A banner stretching across the road leading to this impoverished community in Colombia's northern banana-growing region already takes the new name for granted, saying "Welcome to the magical world of Macondo."


Sadly, it was voted down.

Friday, June 23

De Sade and Dos

Is there a name for that phenomenon when a person, place or thing that you had never really given much thought to, all of a sudden seems to be ubiquitous in your reading? (There's probably a German word for this, there's a German word for everything). I am referring to a scenario like the following: You are reading a novel and one of the minor characters is a leper. That's interesting, you think, I'd never really considered the leper before. Then you stumble upon a magazine article, also about lepers. Then a newspaper article, lepers are in the news. Then maybe you read a book review on a new non-fiction about a leper colony in Trinidad and Tobago. All of a sudden you cannot escape the lepers! Well, something similar happened to me recently. Though, it wasn't with lepers, it was with the Marquis de Sade.

I read a book of interviews with film director Luis Buñuel. The topic of de Sade comes up again and again. At times it seemed as though the interviewers were steering the discussion down that path, but it is evident that de Sade’s work was well read within the 1930’s Spanish surrealist circle that Buñuel ran in.

Then I read an interview with philosopher Arnold Davidson in the May issue of The Believer. Davidson explains: “There were debates when the Marquis de Sade was arrested, for example, about whether he was wicked or suffered from a rare and hardly known mental disorder…. The category of sadism didn’t yet exist! So the Marquis de Sade couldn’t suffer from sadism, because it hadn’t been conceptualized as a possible disease category and his psychology wasn’t that of a sadist.”

Then there was some discussion of Marquis de Sade in either Playboy or Esquire, but I can’t locate it presently. I meant to write it down. So yeah, never had I given much consideration to de Sade, but now here he is, infiltrating my reading diet. This type of thing seems to happen to me a lot, but I am currently at a lose for other examples.

Now some more on Buñuel, because I can. Buñuel is what I would describe as a very literary film director. Perhaps an odd description for a surrealist, but I think it’s apt. In discussing his reasoning for making a film like The Phantom of Liberty, in which the viewer follows of a string of loosely connected vignettes with little central plot, Buñuel uses an example from Crime and Punishment. He says that Dostoyevsky’s classic did not interest him in the least, and that the story might have done better “…to follow Raskolnikov up the stairs, to see him pass a boy who is going out for some bread, to leave Raskolnikov and follow the boy, who becomes the main character in the subsequent episode.” We are to presume that from there in Buñuel’s re-working the boy might pass the story on to a young lady or street peddler or anyone that happened to catch his ineterest, and so on. It’s interesting.

I also enjoy this quote from Buñuel, a man of many obsessions: “I am not preoccupied by my obsessions. Why does grass grow in the garden? Because it is fertilized to do so.”

Side note: Buñuel, Dali and Lorca were close friends in college. That’s just seems too improbable to be true--these three artistic giants paling around the dormitories of Madrid.

Book-Loop isn’t really jumping off like I thought it would. I’m not sure what to post, but I wanted to post something.

Friday, June 16

So, I guess we can start now?

I got a $25 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for my birthday. What should I get? I'm thinking, you know, summer reading for my upcoming travels around the Northeast.

Two books I'm considering are:
Can't Stop Won't Stop
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

How about let's kick things off with a most corny, yet enjoyable topic: Favorite Summer Reading.

Can't go wrong with Murakami. A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World stand out to me as particularly fun summer selections. Zora Neal Hurston's classic Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the sultry deep South and is excellent reading for a languid summer's day. While the story doesn't necessarily make for light, summer fair the writing is so lovely that it is recommended for all seasons. One book I just completed that immediately joins my list is Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is a collection of some of Didion's best work from the early 1960's. A grab bag of extraordinary prose, it pretty much blew my mind. It is not too often that I dip into current pop-lit, but last summer I found Yann Martel's Life of Pi to be quite rewarding. Of course I must also include my favorite current author, David Mitchell. I highly recommend all four of his novels. Mitchell's best book, Cloud Atlas, could potentially be a little more of a mindfuck than you're willing to puruse with your summertime fiction, but you should definitely give it a try. Number9Dream and Black Swan Green are his easier, more straightforward reads. (Number9Dream might be best classified as Murakami-light). I suppose I should also add Raymond Carver, Michael Chabon, and The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers to round out my list.

Wednesday, June 14

Ideas On Book-Loop

First of all Mike, I'm not sure I've ever met you, but this is a great idea and I'm happy to be aboard.

Second, I think of this as a place to discuss books, recommend books, trash books, etc. We could even get a little Oprah shit going on, giving our seal of approval to books. But I'm not sure about swapping books - the hassle it takes to send them long distances, despite the coolness of the idea, is offset by the ease at which we could get them at the library.

Third, I'm trying to get some of my friends to sign up. The more the merrier, I guess.

I just finished The Deptford Trilogy, recommended to me by Ben, and I'm currently on The Tipping Point, which I'll be done with in no time. Then it's on to The Great Influenza, which I've heard great things about. And it's not in my profile below, but the greatest book I've ever read is The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It probably helps that I'm a New Yorker for that, but it is what it is.


Between seeking a cure for the world's worst diseases, saving puppies from oncoming traffic and concurrently dating three of South America's most beautiful women, it's a wonder Bryan has time to read at all. When he turns the pages, though, he leaves this world entirely, and is better for it. He enrolled in the Enfield Tennis Academy in Enfield, MA, for an epic psychadelic journey through his teenage years; his 20s were spent roaming Tokyo, and roaming the recesses of his mind, after his bride left him; he later found a Colombian town where one strange and magical family dominated the town's history and activities for a century, and thereafter left for Buenos Aires, where he discovered a library without end, where he currently resides, looking for the one book that perfectly describes all others. He is friends with Ignatius J. Reilly, Robert Moses, and Magnus Eisengrim, and has read sadly of the fates that befell former chaps Humbert Humbert and Santiago Nasar. He'd love to share all he knows, and receive knowledge in return. In closing, Bryan is a man who also loves the outdoors, and bowling, and as a surfer explored the beaches of southern California from Redondo to Calabassos, and up to Pismo.

Thursday, June 8

A note for those joining us

If you're gonna hang out on this site with us, the first thing you need to do is to create a post on the site. You can put anything in the body of it at first, but make sure that the TITLE of the post is the Name that you want to go by on the site.

This post will be like your profile on the site (check out Ben's for an example), and I believe that only you will be able to edit it, but please keep the title the same so we can maintain the link.

This is sort of a MavGyver'd way to create profiles, and I hope it will work long term. We'll see. Thanks, -Mike

Wednesday, June 7


Ben is a cagey veteran of the blogging game. Born and raised on the mean streets of Martha's Vineyard, where he studied under the masterful tutelage of Mr. Dodge, Ben went off to college in Michigan and graduated in 2003 with a BA in BS. He is currently studying abroad in Seattle, Washington. Ben's favorite writers include Saul Bellow, David Mitchell, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and Robertson Davies. He feels as though he needs to broaden his horizons and read more work by female writers, as well as non-white dudes, but Ben is doing little to change his ways. He is currently reading fiction by a long-dead white dude, with an eye towards jumping into some more long-dead white dude fiction in the very near future. Ben's interests lie mostly in the realm of fiction, but he is not at all opposed to the idea of non-fiction.

Favorite Books Read in 2008
The Braindead Megaphone, by George Saunders
Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon


Mike, sporadic blogger and frequent loafer, was recently transplanted to Southern California. While working with the city of Los Angeles, he will spend his days longing for the intersection of S. State and Hoover and dreaming of the Brown Jug. He will be living alone and will read hungrily, in theory. Being a dork, Mike spends most of his time lately reading nonfiction, and his anticipated reading list is wanting for fiction to a large degree. He owns several classic books and has read maybe two of them. Mike would love to zip through some breezy summer fiction and tackle some classics in the very near future. His likes include chocolate, boobs, and free time. Dislikes include but are not limited to mint, fake boobs, and work.

Update I: Mike has just acquired his Redondo Beach Public Library library card. Said library (the North branch) was closing, and the registration occurred in the nick of time, as they say.

Update II: Mike is pulling his head from the sand.

Update III: Head got sandy again. So, shaved head.


The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

--McSweeney's periodicals: Quarterly and The Believer, Various Authors


--Electronic Gaming Monthly

--SEED Magazine

--Discover Magazine

--Utne Reader

Loopy Library:

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

High Fidelity, Nick Hornsby

Bringing Out the Dead, Joe Connelly

Tandia, Bryce Courtenay

The Giver, Lois Lowry

The Better of McSweeney's, Volume 1, Various Authors

What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil, Michael C. Ruppert
Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken, et al.
European Dictatorships 1918-1945, Stephen J. Lee
What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank
Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger
Stalinism as a Way of Life, Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov
Nazism and German Society 1933-1945, David F. Crew
Peoples and Empires, Anthony Pagden
Where I Was From, Joan Didion

A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

The Outbreak of World War I, Holger H. Herwig

Earth in the Balance, Al Gore


Michael Affeldt
2723 Vanderbilt Ln., Apt. 16
Redondo Beach, CA 90278