Column: Summer Reading List 2010: The Fall

September 9, 2010

Once again, with the passing of Labor Day summer has drawn to its inevitable and mournful close. Children are heading back to school, work loads are heating up as vacations end and Portland has seen fit to send rain pouring on its residents’ heads with an almost Midwest-level intensity. I doubt we’ll see anything of that velocity, given that I’ve lived here two years and have yet to hear a single clap of thunder, but it’s entirely possible that my next spout of radio silence will be due to my apartment building being knocked down by a tornado and the ensuing waves of hipsters it scoops up.

Okay, that intro got a little off course, and I’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll move on. In any case, with the end of the summer also comes the end of my summer reading list, the ten titles I scooped up at the end of May to read through for a variety of reasons. Some of them were selected to clean the shelves off of titles that have gone unread for too long, some catch up on some new releases that my schedule rarely allows for, and one or two so I can revisit old classics to see what I’ve missed or forgotten since the last time around. And once again, I’m going to take some space to see how I did to evaluate my progress and some brief reviews on the titles I chose.

As I mentioned last year, these thoughts will vary in length due to the disparate amount of time spent reading particular titles, how much I enjoyed them or whether or not I plan to review in greater detail later on. Feel free to skim if you must, since honestly there was a bit of that here and there this summer as well.

1.  The Wordy Mammoth: “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace

To answer the question in advance: no, I did not manage to read the entirety of “Infinite Jest” this summer as I challenged myself to do back in the start of June. Yet more than ever, I’m convinced that this delay has nothing to do with the book’s quality, as this was one of the more rewarding attempts to plow through. I got at least 100 pages further than I ever have – hitting the 250 mark – and even learned to appreciate the convention of the footnotes. And I also found myself being more drawn into the characters and the chapters than has ever happened in previous readings – Hal Incandenza is rapidly turning into a great tragic figure, and the chapter on what you learn by hanging around a rehab halfway house is nothing short of brilliant.

But despite my raised esteem for the title and genuinely enjoyable reading sessions, I still couldn’t get further than 250 pages in, and I think I’ve finally figured out why: after those 250 pages of reading, I couldn’t tell you anything that had happened in the book. The cast and setting had been fleshed out a great deal, with scores of interesting characters and locations, but other than a drug deal here and there nothing had moved forward in a way that could be considered plot.

I’ve got nothing against a book taking its time getting to the action, nor will I begrudge an author setting the scene if that staging is done as well as some of “Infinite Jest’s” sections. The problem I have is that I could read two different novels in the time it took me to get to the quarter-mark in this one, and as well-written as it is the action just isn’t compelling enough to justify further investment of time at once. I’ll certainly finish it at some point – it’s too well done not to – but it’ll be in pieces over the weeks and months rather than one long stretch.

2.  The Classical Education: “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

My sophomore effort into reading Russian authors (freshman being the exceptional “Novel with Cocaine”) proved to be one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the summer. I’ve always had a fondness for depictions of the Devil and his minions in literature, and this one earned a lot of favor very quickly with its rogues’ gallery of Professor Woland, Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. For no other purpose than their own amusement, they toy with the intellectual elite of Moscow, granting them an audience and seeming enlightenment before sending them to the sanitarium one by one. The Devil has always been the most interesting when he lets men damn themselves rather than go against them with force, and this book was loaded with interesting examples.

Beyond the Devil and his minions, the titular Master and Margarita offer a great deal to the story, though their time together never really seems to carry the intensity it should. The Master’s book on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ paints a wonderful picture of both ancient Judea and its tormented ruler Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel that pairs very well with the overarching story. And Margarita, called to serve at Woland’s great ball, showcases the free acceptance of  powers and depravity Satan can provide, hosting a dark carnival full of truly stirring visuals.

This may even turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve never paid much attention to who’s doing the translations of non-English works (as I’m sure I’ve said before, something’s always lost when you’re not reading in an author’s native tongue) but in the case of “The Master” it might matter as I’ve learned the translation I read (Mirra Ginsberg’s translation for Grove Press) is an incomplete one based on Soviet edits. So, when it comes time to reread, it might be in my best interests to seek out another other translations considered superior both by scholars and native Russian readers – and then revisit the original for comparison.

3.  The It’s-Been-A-While/Argumentative Support: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

I said in my original list that the reason I picked this one was partially because it had been a couple of years since the last read-through, and partially because I’d had a few friends lambaste it for various reasons and I wanted to be in a position to defend it. Having read through it again, I will be willing to grant that I understand the points I’ve heard made over the years. Several of the characters are one-dimensional and occasionally border on stock, it spends a great deal of time on minutiae and might be a bit too heavy-handed in its symbolism.

But while I agree to understand those points, I have to reject each of them based on my counterargument: that the writing style is nothing short of pure art, and criticism is equivocal to picking on a Monet for being in an ugly frame. Fitzgerald toiled over “Gatsby” for years to get every word right, and it shows – the phrases and descriptions are note perfect, the garden parties depicted with an almost mystical energy. It’s long been said that Hunter S. Thompson typed out the entire book in his younger years and during periods of writer’s block, and after reading it yet again I’m starting to think that doing so would be a better assignment for English students instead of writing generic analysis.

So to those of you who attack “The Great Gatsby” or consider it a bad book, I make one of my rare declarative statements: you are wrong. Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal.

4.  The Essay Collection/Later Years Offering: “A Man Without A Country,” Kurt Vonnegut

The first book I finished this summer, “A Man Without A Country” turned out to be vintage Vonnegut – my last Vonnegut reading was his novel/memoir “Timequake,” and this continued the vein of shorter pieces that boiled down his observations on life, love and America in a few very choice phrases. He spoke of being a child of the Great Lakes rather than the oceans (lakes I miss very deeply, being marooned out in Oregon), the creation of an axis to map the action in creative writing and his devotion to humanism as the rare faith that makes sense. This led to one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes, which I managed to work into his obituary I wrote in college: “Should I ever die, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in Heaven right now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

However, while reading the pieces I found it hard to shake that this book somehow felt more cynical, more negative than other Vonnegut works, even though much of it was still infused with the typical black comedy. There was a sense of resignation bordering on the fatalistic, that in sharing the twilight of his life with the George W. Bush administration and the rampant capitalism and pollution was about the last straw.  “I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren,” he says at one point, and after a while the viewpoint sinks in a bit too heavily for some.

But for all of that, it still maintained that streak of ironic philosophy he was so well known for – and which the book managed to crystallize with its art, each chapter peppered with full-page hand-lettered statements produced by Origami Express. These are statements of Vonnegut’s inestimable wisdom that could have been scribbled in his notepad and that belong on desks and frames, to be said to yourself when you feel a bit adrift or lost in thought. And in those occasions where everything is going right, heed his advice and say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

5.  The Modern Classic: “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” Cormac McCarthy

This one was last on the list due to a regular excuse – it wound up buried on a pile on the nightstand until mid-August – and at the time of writing, I’m only about 100 pages into it. That’s a shame, because it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite McCarthy books and one of the best ones on this list. Following the adventures of the simply named “kid” as he heads west and crosses paths with the most brutal cast of pioneers since “Deadwood,” the book paints the frontier in McCarthy’s signature style: absolutely gorgeous in its undeveloped openness, but unforgiving for any of its characters who don’t take the time to prepare for environment and residents.

And the title is so appropriate: the book has more blood than a keg party for lazy storytelling, and battle scenes that are without punctuation (even moreso than other McCarthy works) are an unflinching and ceaseless display of what happens outside of civilization’s aegis. This is a violent book, but even in its most violent moments there’s nothing gratuitous about it – this is simply how it is, and you either adapt or you die.

Every so often, my interest in a particular genre or era will be kindled by one book alone, and this case “Blood Meridian” has catapulted me into the Wild West. I have about two-thirds of the book left, and I can’t wait to read more.

6.  The Posthumous Blockbuster Read: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

2010 was a good summer for Swedish authors in the Chappell household, with both Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” finding their way off my shelves in the past month. I’ve already touched on “Tattoo’s” public presence in my recent Text-to-Screen (and “Let the Right One In” will get its attention next month) but independent of all that this book deserves the buzz and the praise it’s generated in the mainstream media. It’s a genuinely gripping and intricate mystery, with language that managed to be tense and exciting without ever becoming florid, and two sharply defined characters in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (though to be fair, I award bonus points for any novel where the heroes are a journalist and a social introvert).

I could go into a more intricate analysis of the book – what was lost in translation, its visceral scenes of sex and violence, whether or not changing the title from “Men who Hate Women” was a smart idea – but there’s only one thing I feel I need to say. After a few shifts of reading I was near the the halfway point before putting it down, and after resuming it at a coffee shop I sat there for three hours straight until it was done, without once moving and tuning out all baristas and customers after ordering. And for a suspense novel, I don’t think there’s any more of a recommendation I can grant.

7.  The Book Club Attractant: “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” Stephen Dobyns

This book inspired a lot of spirited debate when it went through The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books discussion process, and having finished it I can say that the debate was well-deserved. This is one hell of a complex book, meshing Christian mythology and Nietzschean philosophy with the bustling world of New York city and the glitzy world of professional wrestling. It’s frequently over-the-top, written in a poetic style that directly speaks to the reader constantly, and is juggling so many threads that the main character’s frustration can carry over along with the narration. Duality is a constant theme in the book, so it’s not surprising that it’s sure to be one that polarizes readers.

But in that polarization, I’m on the end that enjoyed this one a great deal. It reminded me quite a bit of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (and to a lesser extent Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision”), creating a cast of well-defined oddballs who are turned loose in a well-known American city and whose paths keep overlapping, often without their knowledge. Dobyns’ background as a poet means the language is occasionally misleading but never dull, and none of the philosophy specifics are exactly essential to the plot. It’s the big picture, the debate on duality and image that matters, and the story’s cast manage to illustrate that in at least a dozen different examples.

I enjoyed this one – and the attendant debate – so much that I’m actually preparing a longer Back Shelf Review on this one, so I won’t go too much further. Stay tuned!

8.  The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan

For most people the summer reruns are something that you flip to when there’s nothing on and it’s not nice enough to go on an adventure, but for two years in a row now my summer reruns have deeply contributed to my appreciation of something I read in college. The first (and hopefully not last) volume of Dylan’s autobiography, the book paints a fascinating picture of Dylan’s time growing up in Minnesota and 1950s-60s New York City, deep in the small town and folk singer lifestyle. Dylan’s gift for language is on display here almost as much as his albums, and his voice describes the scenes with that indefinable voice that sounds more and more like America’s spirit the older he gets.

The book has also managed to kindle my interest in Dylan albums I wouldn’t normally seek out – chapters on the creation and production of New Morning and Oh Mercy takes up much more of the book’s narrative than I remembered in my last reading. I genuinely enjoyed the details he gave on generating songs like “Political World” and “Everything is Broken,” and it’s made me even more hopeful that the rumors that the next installment of “Chronicles” will have a similar chapter on Dylan’s legendary Blood on the Tracks.

Postscript: The Stragglers

Eagle-eyed readers will probably note that this list is incomplete. While this year turned out much better than the last one for finishing books, with my busy scholarly lifestyle there had to be some excisions – and this year’s happened to be Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” and Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists.” This didn’t have anything to do with their quality, but more to do with how heavily both were in demand. To save some money I put holds on both through my local library, but was so far down the queue on each that I wasn’t able to get them until it started getting cold out – so sadly, there was no Genre Fiction Immersion or Recently Critically Acclaimed on the above list.

However, to give this story a happy ending, at the time of writing this my holds have finally come through and copies of both “Boneshaker” and “The Imperfectionists” are now sitting on the table in front of me. This is good news for all concerned, as to make up for not giving the the deserved attention this summer, I’m moving them into the reviewing queue. Loyal readers can expect to see reviews of both titles up by the time I have to take them back, and see in greater detail just what I think about internal journalistic drama or Pacific Northwest steampunk zombies.

So, six out of ten finished, one abandoned, one in progress and two to come. Not bad. How’d yours go?


Column: Reading List for Summer 2010

June 1, 2010

With the passing of Memorial Day, once again summer is rearing its well-tanned head to offer the promise of Adirondack chairs and rum-laced lemonades on the patio – and it can’t come soon enough in my opinion. Living in Portland, spring has consisted of the occasional insanely nice weekends bookending weeks of weather that alternate between constant light rain, partly cloudy days and moments of sun – often changing three times during my fifteen-minute drive to work. I’ve begun barricading myself in my apartment most days, refusing to emerge until the region makes up its blasted mind about what mood it wants to be in for the day.

Fortunately, the bunker approach has allowed me to scheme heavily about what books I intend to take outside, as well as have the time to sort through the contents of my shelves to see what needs to be read before more books can be acquired. And given the positive feedback and linking last year’s reading list inspired, I present once again to devoted/interested readers my literary earmarks for summer 2010. In the time between lists I still haven’t become famous enough for my recommendations to inspire legions of sales, but if you own these titles and want to mark them as recommended just sketch a fedora and highball glass on the copyright page.

1. The Wordy Mammoth: “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace

Where’s Wallace? Where’s the boy, String? Oh, wait, there it is – still taking up a prominent place on my nightstand underneath the coaster for the evening’s bourbon. Yes, in the twelve months between lists I still have not moved “Infinite Jest” into the completed column, confounded both by its epic length and the fact that its massive footnotes are a Tonya Harding to the kneecap that is my reading experience. There have always been a long list of recommendations for this book from friends and other critics, and my admiration of Wallace has grown after reading his essay collection “Consider the Lobster,” but it’s never been able to capture my attention for long enough to make a respectable dent.

We’re going to take another stab at it this summer however, owing in part to my discovery of the Infinite Summer book group established last year, devoted to plowing through the title from June 21st to September 22nd and engaging in regular roundtables. Sadly, it won’t be continued this year (at least the site gives no indication) but I like the idea of setting a schedule on such a large reading project and balancing with other titles. About 82 pages a week for three months, interspersed with reading the site’s archived discussions, sounds like a completely practical way to spend part of the summer.

2. The Classical Education: “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

While I consider myself fairly well-rounded as a reader, spending time with the more established genres and the esoteric curiosities, I’ve never really gotten into the Russian authors to the extent I feel I should have. Despite their towering critical reputation amongst countless writers and at least one Russian book resolutely sitting in my top ten books of all time, I’ve never been motivated to seek out a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky for casual reading or edification. I’m honestly unable to explain it, unless it’s some sort of a cultural gap or Russia-focused racism that extends only to their printed word.

But I always pride myself on being willing to put a few new bricks in the wall, and to take my next step into Mother Russia’s library “The Master and Margarita” seems like a good start. Filled with anti-Stalinist messages, cutting satire and the always reliable use of the Devil, it’s regarded as one of the greatest novels of the last century and managed to inspire a personal favorite song. Also, it’s far shorter than the sprawling epics that exemplify classic Russian literature, and since I picked up a nicely aged paperback from a small shop in Eau Claire, WI while visiting my brother a couple of years ago it won’t be hard to find a copy.

3. The Recently Critically Acclaimed: “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman

A curious tangent relates this to the previous pick. Having heard about an interesting title on Russian authors on the New York Times Book Review podcast (which you all should listen to), I went to their website to find the original review when I was confronted with Christopher Buckley’s glowing review of “The Imperfectionists.” Being one of my favorite columnists and critics (and a one-time review subject), I pay close attention to Buckley’s words, and when he calls a new release “alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching… assembled like a Rubik’s Cube,” I sit up and take note.

I did a bit more reading into the title, and not only has it been positively reviewed by other venues whose critical opinions I respect, but the plot circles around a topic very dear to my heart: my beloved newspaper industry and the esoteric characters who make it up. It appears to be assembled in the piecemeal style I find attractive in some novels, more like a collection of short stories, allowing for easier access and reading in spells without breaking the flow. Watch this space for a very likely review of my own.

4. The It’s-Been-A-While/Argumentative Support: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

In one of the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, his white knight P.I. is on assignment in Los Angeles and wanders into a bookstore, picking up a copy of “The Great Gatsby” because he simply has to reread it every few years and it’s time again. And this summer, I share Spenser’s mentality – having not read the book in at least a year and a half – and have decided it’s time to delve back into the world of single dreams and green lights. I’ve always been impressed by the inhuman grace Fitzgerald has for choosing the right words, and the Gatsby story is a narrative in literature’s highest tiers.

My motivation is also driven by the way several people I know have reacted to pinning the word “classic” on the title, culminating in a string of “Gatsby”-bashing on my Facebook page when I attributed a page of it to my current mood. The general sense seemed to be that it was seen as an “overrated piece of shit” (per my friend Liam) and with so much time since my last reading I couldn’t mount a proper defense. So this read will allow me to see whether I continue to stand in stalwart defense or if I find my views shifting to the realm of parody.

5. The Genre Fiction Immersion: “Boneshaker,” Cherie Priest

As the above four titles probably indicated to you, my reading habits tend to skew towards books that are classified as straight literature rather than falling into any specific genre. However, I do believe in a balanced literary diet, and enjoy the occasional dip into genre fiction, and seeing “Boneshaker” prominently displayed on the best-seller shelves at Powell’s peaked my interest. With alternative history fiction (post-Civil War Seattle), a zombie plague and airships galore all included, it looks like a cocktail of elements to fire off all my geek cylinders.

It won’t be the only steampunk book I read this summer (amongst others, Quirk Classics’ “Android Karenina” is next on the reviewing slate to see how the nascent series proceeds) but it does seem to have the purest devotion to its subject and widest offerings. Plus, it’s the winner of the 2010 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by a Northwest Author, and I support my local authors as much as my local businesses.

6. The Essay Collection/Later Years Offering: “A Man Without A Country,” Kurt Vonnegut

With half my list already devoted to full-on novels, I figure it’s about time to break it up and add something more fitted to my busy lifestyle. As my excuse for not reading “Infinite Jest” goes, I do a lot of reading on the go, and a book that can be read in chunks without breaking the flow is usually the default choice to carry around. “Consider the Lobster” recently filled that role, as did Sarah Vowell’s “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” and The New York Times“Writers on Writing.”

This summer’s shorter selection is “A Man Without A Country,” the last book published in Vonnegut’s lifetime (the posthumous “Armageddon in Retrospect” being the last Vonnegut book proper) in which he unleashes his trademark cynicism on the Bush administration and other failures of our time. Beyond practical length, it’s got several supporting arguments in my sphere: I read his other later years novel “Timequake” in recent months and found it invigoratingly clever, and TLOTE’s own Carrie Lorig gave it rave reviews upon its initial release back in 2006. Vonnegut may not have had a chance to grade this one in comparison to his other works, but I have a suspicion it’ll hold up well.

7. The Modern Classic: “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” Cormac McCarthy

Having checked “The Road” off the list after last summer had come and gone (just in time for the stirring film adaptation), my admiration for how Cormac McCarthy wields the English language has only increased. His excision of quotation marks and apostrophes, his spartan prose, his incredibly strong characters and plots – all of them have led me to dub him not only the spiritual successor to William Faulkner but our greatest living writer.

And while I have spent a good deal of time with McCarthy, I haven’t yet gotten into the work widely considered his magnum opus. “Blood Meridian,” the saga of a teenage runaway who took up with a notorious gang of scalp hunters, has been praised not only as a wonderfully bleak interpretation of the concept of America’s manifest destiny, but also one of the finest novels of the 20th century. It might be a little bit too dark for a summer read, but the fact that I’ll be able to take long walks outside afterwards should offset any potential psychic scarring.

8. The Posthumous Blockbuster Read: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

This is a party that’s gotten a lot of buzz over the last few years but it’s one I find I’ve come a bit late to. For those unfamiliar, author Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist known for his campaigns against against right-wing extremism, who died of a heart attack in 2004. He left behind three novels he wrote after work for his own pleasure, novels that have come to be known as The Millenium Trilogy and which have since sold 27 million copies worldwide. (For a better grasp on his story, read this excellent piece from The New York Times Magazine.)

Given that we all need a good thriller for summer beach reading, and last week’s release of the third volume “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” it doesn’t seem like there’s a better time to get started with the trilogy. Additionally, with a well-received film adaptation making the rounds in the smaller indie theaters, it’s perfect fodder for an upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio. If Swedish filmmakers have proven anything, it’s that they can make virtually perfect films when they look to books for source material.

9. The Book Club Attractant: “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” Stephen Dobyns

With my local book groups fragmenting for varied reasons, I’ve been on the prowl for a new source of recommendations and discussions, and I think I’ve found one in The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books online book club. Having been a part of the Literature and Libations book group back in Madison, I know for a fact that the A.V. Club has terrific taste in books (I learned of “Geek Love” and “The Savage Detectives” through there), and as I mentioned with Infinite Summer, the more written discussion there is about a book the more invested I get. Unfortunately, with my existing schedule I haven’t been participating on time – I’m always reluctant to show up without doing my homework.

However, I did manage to pick up a gorgeous hardcover version of the March title “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” for only $5 at Powell’s before the deadline passed, and while not reading it on time it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Described by the group’s moderator as a mix of “fairy-tale mythos, Nietzsche quotations, and the World Wrestling Federation,” it has the prerequisite oddness and strength of ideas I’ve come to expect from A.V. Club selections. Plus, the original discussions are all archived on their website, giving a sound resource to fall back on between chapters.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan

The only category making an appearance from last year’s list, this choice meshes with the recent reactivation of my Bob Dylan appreciation. With the legend’s birthday last week I decided to throw on a few of his albums in tribute, and I found that my conception of what his albums mean has matured over the years (though I remain forcefully convinced of the superiority of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). As such, I’m interested to see what his book will mean a few years after the first read.

I once said of the book that it “read like [Dylan] blended his best albums with Jack Kerouac,” and unlike several of my opinions this one hasn’t changed over time. It doesn’t provide any tell-all details of his life or illuminate his songwriting process, but fans have come to expect cryptic replies over the years in exchange for the sheer depth of what Dylan provides to his listeners. I have my doubts that we’ll ever see the two additional volumes that have been promised for this series – Dylan being Dylan, after all – so we’ll have to see if this one will be enough.

While I didn’t get through more than half of my list last year, I’m more optimistic about this year’s selection, given the fact that I have most of these titles on hand already and have lived in Portland long enough to pick out the best spots for reading outside. What’s everyone else thinking of?

Column: Summer Reading List 2009: The Fall

September 23, 2009


Well, the autumn equinox has passed us by, and the last time frame that we can consider the summer of 2009 has drawn to a close. And with the end of summer comes the end of summer reading lists, mine among them. Does anyone care how well I did? Does anyone wonder what I thought of them? Does anyone still read this site considering how long it’s been since my last update? (P.S.: New reviews, Back Shelf and Text-to-Screen are coming soon.)

Since that piece wound up being the most read article on my site (piggy-backing onto searches for summer reading lists) I assume people care, so I’ve decided to take a look back and see how I managed to do. I didn’t do as well as I would have hoped, chiefly because I discovered P.G. Wodehouse at the start of June and spent the majority of the summer reading and rereading the adventures of Wooster, Psmith and Ukridge among others. I’m going to be writing a piece on that shortly, but in the meantime here’s a piece the A.V. Club did that has a fairly good introduction to the canon.

Please do note that since I didn’t manage to read the entirety of the list, these entries vary in length – either me talking in detail about the book, or making excuses as to why I didn’t read. Others I did manage to read but wound up writing full reviews on, so I’ll save you from my repeats and just link you to the original articles. Much like my summer, this list will likely be chaotic and all over the place.

1. “2666”, by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverIn a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…

2. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverMaybe it’s a part of my obsessive nature, maybe it’s my feeling of satisfaction at looking upon my bookshelf, but for some reason I always feel both driven and obligated to finish titles that I purchase. However, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is one of the rare books that I just couldn’t gather up the interest to finish and gave up on within a hundred pages.

Now this isn’t anything to do with the author himself – I always take Hemingway’s side in the Faulkner vs. Hemingway debates, count “A Moveable Feast” as one of my favorite titles and think some of his short stories are possessed of a truly brilliant craft. The problem I have is I find he works best in shorter format, or dealing with his life as a writer – once he gets into the world of war it starts to drag. Honestly, I’ve found that his novels seem to go down in my estimation as they progress: loved “The Sun Also Rises,” was iffy on “A Farewell to Arms,” didn’t like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at all.

My objection to the book isn’t the craft of the words, but just the fact that it’s utterly devoid of action to start and not in a good way. The main action of the first hundred pages is simply discussing war and bombing the bridge, but never moves on from that first scene – all the same characters and the singular setting. We get a lot of discussion on war and patriotism, but the characters tend to repeat themselves in that same Hemingway voice (and as William S. Burroughs observed, nobody talks like that except Hemingway characters).

And, while I know this isn’t Hemingway’s fault, I could never get around his main character being called Robert Jordan. It makes me wonder if his character will set his explosives muttering about how “ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”

Maybe Hemingway just works better in a shorter format, or maybe I just prefer his writing on Paris to his writing on war. Either way, that bell did not toll for me.

3. “The Year of Living Biblically,” by A.J. Jacobs


I actually wound up doing a formal review of this one some time ago, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that this is a funny and meaningful book, and one of the only things to pique my own interest in reading the Bible – and considering how devout of an agnostic I am, that’s an achievement in and of itself.

4. “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestYeah, what do you think happened? Despite friends telling me you can read it out of order and it really doesn’t matter as much as other books, despite the fact that I haven’t had any work save rattling off a few freelance features this summer, despite the fact I’ve been working out and can lift the volume above my head, I didn’t manage to read David Foster Wallace’s behemoth this year either. Thought about it but always managed to find an excuse – family coming into town, got to get a review done, can’t find my copy anywhere. (That last one’s actually still true.)

I think though that one of the main factors that kept me from really getting into the book was the discovery of the “Infinite Summer” group – though not for the reasons you may think. I wanted to join but the group was already into it, asking questions and discussing plot points I hadn’t heard of. I felt getting into it late would just muddle things up, and with a book like this focus is key. Were I to have discovered this group at the start of the summer, it would have given me something to shoot for and a sense of community, which I think is essential for a book of this scope and depth.

I find it entirely possible I won’t have gotten around to reading it by next summer either, and if so I intend to get into the group right away. Feel free to cite me on this nine months from now.

5. “Losing Mum and Pup,” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupAgain, this one turned into an actual review so I’ll point you there for my comments. The short version, Christopher Buckley is in top form here, with one of the rare books that manages to choke me up and make me laugh in alternating chapters.

6.“The Graveyard Book,” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBThis one is uninteresting to talk about sadly – I don’t own the book and am short on cash to purchase new ones, so therefore I have neglected to pick up my own version. For thematic reasons, I’m going to wait a few weeks to pick up a copy and read it around the end of October once the nights start getting cold and the leaves start changing.


7.“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England,” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverThis one I also didn’t get to, but to be honest it was more of a space issue than a scheduling one. Due to the fact that my apartment has about as much free space as a janitor’s closet I’ve had to economize, storing books in various piles and boxes around the apartment. “An Arsonist’s Guide” wound up inside an antique wooden chest that I use as an end table early on and I never managed to recover it, pulling it out only recently during an apartment reorganization. I’m adding it to the queue of general reading after I finish off a few titles I’ve got lined up to review.

8.“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverI have not read or purchased the book yet, and therefore this one is also uninteresting to talk about. Rest assured that I do intend to have it read by the time the film comes out in order to do a proper Text-to-Screen. I have seen a trailer for the film – which was accompanied by trailers for “9” and “2012.” What is up with the apocalyptic fixation of Hollywood these days?

9.“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayHo ho, what’s this? A book I actually got around to reading.

I said in my original list that this was one I wanted to read on the grounds that I hadn’t gotten into Michael Chabon yet, and reading it proved my title that I really should have read it by now. This is a wonderfully constructed novel, telling the story of two cousins making their names as creators of superhero comics and working past their problematic childhoods.

What I love the most about this one is its atmosphere and the depth Chabon takes with each of his main characters, creating their back story and motivations to a surprising degree. Escapism is a major theme of the book and in many ways it feels like an escapist novel, showing a rags-to-riches story and fountains of creativity in its main characters. Fittingly for a novel about comic writing, it also takes the time to really flesh out the comic characters his main characters create, and expertly show how they were both influenced by real people and influence those people in turn.

The problem I have with this book is that it makes a very unfortunate turn a little more than halfway through, abandoning its earlier focus for a sojourn into the coldest, most isolated part of World War II. I’ll avoid giving away any spoilers, but it breaks what was a rip-roaring jaunt through comic book history and growing romance into often macabre melodrama. The section is certainly well-done, but it doesn’t feel right – like a separate novella Chabon hastily stitched in when the deadline was due. He recovers somewhat in the final section by picking up in New York, but this works chiefly because its plot points are from the first parts.

Final verdict? A good book overall and I’m glad I read it this summer, but it doesn’t earn a spot in my favorites as it has for a lot of other people.

10.“The Boys on the Bus”

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverIn another odd mixup, the last one on the list actually wound up being the first one I read this summer – mostly because the drive to reread has always been stronger in me than most people. And it’s another book that definitely benefits from a reread, especially post-2008 presidential campaign. It’s unsettling to see how many of the trends in reporting and candidates simply remain the same, ranging from pack journalism to the regurgitation of press releases in lieu of proper reporting.

It’s also worth taking a look at for his sections on the reporters as personalities, chiefly because it features R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. and Robert Novak, both of whom passed away between my reads of the book. Crouse does a great job phrasing and depicting the reporters, some as egomaniacs and some as strategists, some as frustrated with their editors and some as surprisingly content to churn out their content.

So that’s how my list turned out: four reads, four not started, one stopped early, one in progress. Yours?

    In a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

    And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

    This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

    Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

    And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…

Column: Reading List for Summer 2009

May 27, 2009

reading_in_the_sunWell, Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and with the beginning of summer the weather is now nice enough that hopeless shut-ins like myself can finally pry themselves away from their reading chairs and migrate outside to read amongst the sun and the squirrels. And with the seasonal change comes the summer reading lists, where students of all ages are united in a grand act of procrastination that usually leads to spending Labor Day furiously skimming over a title bought three months ago.

In that spirit of setting unrealistic expectations, here is TLTOE’s reading list for summer of 2009. Sadly, I am not well known enough as a book critic to have my recommendations posted on these titles’ covers the way Oprah does, but feel free to put stickers on your copies and know your reading choices are supported.

1. The Personal/Professional Interest Title: “2666” by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverI read Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” as one last summer, and I thought that it was one of the best books I’d read that year, a sort of Latin-American/Beat Generation hybrid recounting four decades in the “visceral realism” genre of poetry. Bolaño seems to have become the greatest nonliving writer of our generation, with his works being published to almost universal critical acclaim. I normally steer clear of other reviews prior to reading a book, but since all my professional contemporaries seem to be praising “2666” as The One True God of fiction destined to inspire us out of the Dark Ages I am contractually obligated to explore it and see what all the fuss is about.

2.The Obligatory Classic: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverThe only one of Hemingway’s novels I have yet to read (discounting “The Old Man and the Sea” which is more of a novella). I’ve always liked Hemingway’s war-weary style and spartan prose, and this tale of an American solider fighting in the Spanish Civil War looks to capture my interest as much as “A Farewell to Arms” did a few months ago. Granted, “The Sun Also Rises” might be more appropriate thematically for a summer read, but I’ve been going in chronological order and would hate to backtrack.

3. The Random Recommendation: “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

year-of-living-biblically_coverRecommended to me by my apartment manager and scooped up off the sale tables at Powell’s, this is exactly the sort of book I would have reviewed in TLOTE had it been operational in 2007. The saga of a magazine editor who lived one year of his life according to the most literal interpretation of the Bible, it promises to be both hilarious and interesting, if the opening page’s photographic journal of his beard is any indication.

4. The Sitting-On-A-Shelf-For-Months Title: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestThis is really less a part of the reading list as it is a long-term goal I have been working at for the past four years now. I have regularly tried to pick up this behemoth on the dysfunctional Incandenza family and work my way through it, a process that is hampered by my distractable nature, its 1000+ page length and the flow-breaking footnotes that earn you a bicep workout just for flipping to the end of the book a record number of times. However, a mix of factors – a constant stream of recommendation by friends as a life-changing experience, the author’s tragic death last year and the fact that I finally got my copy back from storage – have led me to once again try scaling the mountain.

5. The Anticipated Release: “Losing Mum and Pup” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupI’ve been a devout reader of Buckley’s column for The Daily Beast ever since he caused a minor ruckus by announcing he would vote for Barack Obama, and I think the books of his I’ve read rank among the funniest. For those reasons his latest title, a memoir on losing his famous and difficult parents in the span of a year, intrigues me: how will a writer who is chiefly a humorist and political columnist approach such a (frankly) depressing topic, and what does he have to say on a relationship that was known to be contentious? Watch this space for my reactions, as it’s in the review queue as soon as I get my copy.

6. The Book I Missed At First: “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBDespite my affection for Gaiman’s writing I didn’t manage to read this one when it first came out, chiefly due to the fact that it overlapped with the “Coraline” film release and the reading/viewing occupied my attention. By the time I finished with that, it was a Newbury award winner and all copies vanished from the shelves for a few weeks until they could be reprinted with a shiny gold sunburst decal on the cover. Now that the reprints are out and Gaimania has lulled somewhat, this will be another title where I see what all the fuss is about.

7. The Book The Radio Told Me To Read: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverAnother one I missed at first, I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I heard a feature about it on NPR when it was first released. It’s the sort of random concept that always appeals to me for the basis of a novel – a man accidentally burns down Emily Dickenson’s home and after his release from prison is framed for torching several other literary abodes – and critical response to the book has been rather positive. Reviews have pegged it as absurdist and quirky, two words that always bring me to pull a title off the shelf.

8. The Upcoming Text-to-Screen Preparation: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverThe obligatory “read the book then see the movie” choice for this summer, in preparation for the fall release of the film starring Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. The film’s release has actually been delayed for a year, and while I have yet to look into any details the film is apparently so good it stunned an Esquire columnist into silence for four whole pages. As I was very appreciative of “No Country for Old Men” and called years in advance how good the film would be, I have an obligation to experience this next volume.

9. The Book I Really Should Have Read By Now: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayThis is the point where the literary elite get to beat me up and try to strip me of my rank and title, because I have to admit I know absolutely nothing about Michael Chabon beyond the fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize and is “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation.” I tend to be a bit behind on contemporary fiction writers – Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen to name a few – and I feel catching up is important. This one was picked because its comic-oriented story looked interesting, and I got my copy quite cheap.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverAfter Powell’s finally managed to get this book back in stock, I scooped up my copy right away. I read it a few years ago in college, but it’s a title worth owning and worth rereading – probably the best chronicle of what it’s like to be in the journalistic trenches of a presidential campaign and full of interesting portraits of other political writers of the time.

Will I get through all or even some of these works over the next three months, in between job hunting and barbecues and my own general distractability? Hard to say except for the fact that it’s a crop of titles I think I can’t help but get into.

So, what are you reading this summer?