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.

Also:
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

Bah!

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

Dumbass

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.