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as much as from the books that have found their way into the public domain, especially if you think your copy of Proust is obsolete, Ben).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

Translation

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.

Discuss.

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.)

LTS

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.