Column: Summer Reading List 2009: The Fall

September 23, 2009

fall-of-autumn-leaves-wallpaper

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

year-of-living-biblically_cover

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.

dfsdfsf

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…


Book Review: Losing Mum and Pup

June 15, 2009

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

losing_mum_and_pupBy Christopher Buckley

Published May 6, 2009

Twelve Books

272 pp.

ISBN 0-446-54094-3

Reviewed June 15, 2009

Ever since the death of William F. Buckley Jr. in February 2008, his son Christopher appears to have a target painted on his back. Although he chiefly works as a humorist, with satirical government-based novels such as “Supreme Courtship” and “Thank You For Smoking,” a rather vocal group seems to think he is under a moral obligation to preserve the family legacy in the ways they deem appropriate. When he joined the ranks of Republican intellectuals endorsing Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential election, the backlash was so voluminous that he was forced to resign from the very magazine that his father founded and which he still owns one-seventh of.

But that excoriation pales in comparison to some of the comments directed at his latest book, “Losing Mum and Pup,” which has been criticized as full of selfish, petty smears against parents who are no longer around to defend themselves. Once again, the reaction is overblown and completely missing the spirit of his actions, as it’s hard to think of a book that feels more like saying a fond farewell. Mixing his trademark wry humor with sentimental honesty, it’s not an insult but a tribute to people who may have been difficult to live with but never impossible to respect or love.

Between April 2007 and February 2008, Buckley suffered the loss of both his parents – a loss whose difficulty was compounded by their public reputations. His father was credited as the founder of modern conservative thought (as well as National Review and “Firing Line” and over 50 books); and his mother was “the chic and stunning” Patricia Taylor Buckley, queen of New York socialites for decades. They were people of immense reputation and charm, and Buckley was their only son – a relationship regularly strained by faith, black humor and intellect.

Buckley traces over these difficult months, from his mother’s deathbed to the final memorial service for his father in Connecticut. He was pushed into a variety of roles, ranging from nursemaid to an often obstinate patient to literary executor to organizer of elaborate memorial services (the book has regular asides on the minutiae of cremation costs and military honors). Along the way we also see how his parents’ loss touched the political world, with vignettes on his father’s close friends from Henry Kissinger to George McGovern.

Detractors will make the claim that Chris Buckley is kicking out the pedestal his parents were placed on, and to some extent this is correct. He does not skimp over his mother’s acid tongue, treating us to uncomfortable dinner scenes where she humiliated her granddaughter’s best friend and refused Ted Kennedy a car (“There are bridges between here and Gstaad”). His father is shown as distant and difficult, not at his son’s sickbed or graduation and reviewing “Boomsday”  in a uncomplimentary sentence (“This one didn’t work for me. Sorry”).

But none of these comments really ever comes across as mudslinging, more presenting pieces of what made his parents such a complicated package. As Buckley himself says, “larger-than-life people create larger-than-life dramas,” and he more than counters their dramas with the reasons they were larger than life. Pat Buckley could be cruel but she was also a hostess without peer, backing every one of her husband’s ventures without hesitation (after first trying to talk him out of it) and ripping into anyone who dared to insult her son. And WFB was for all his faults “the world’s coolest mentor,” teaching his son how to navigate by the stars and then pushing his limits by sailing in a borderline-monsoon storm.

And the complaints by the indignant reviewers also gloss over the fact that this is probably Buckley’s best-written book to date. He has publicly stepped away from “channeling” his father’s ghost, but between the brisk precision of the word choice and the speed of composition (he has said he wrote it in 40 days) it’s easy to picture WFB offering a spiritual boost. Opening with an Oscar Wilde quote on losing ones parents (“looks like carelessness”), literacy permeates the text with references on everything from P.G. Wodehouse to Joseph Conrad to the labors of Hercules. His mother’s ghost also makes an appearance with various barbs to break the tension: “Oh, do pull yourself together and stop carrying on in this fashion.”

But it’s in the moments where he realizes his looming orphanhood that “Losing Mum and Pup” takes on a singular power, needing no narrative devices other than straight reaction. He may portray his parents as weak but he is in almost as much pain, seeking to rationalize his own thoughts and leave things on as even a keel as is possible. The instance where he gets the call on his father’s death is painfully immersive, showing a war with instincts and emotions and wondering if he should continue what he was doing before, the taxes: “Maybe if I do them, this won’t have happened.”

If there are conflicting opinions about “Losing Mum and Pup,” they may be justified as Buckley’s own opinions were conflicted – but anyone who despises him for daring to show William and Pat Buckley as flawed is blind to the wash of affection he shows them, and the affection they had for each other. “Losing Mum and Pup” is a beautiful piece of work, funny and touching, giving a view of Buckley’s own coming to terms and the universal pain of saying goodbye to your parents.


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?


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