Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Joy in Franzen

October 7, 2010

So the thing about Freedom: it’s good. I would love to be contrarian and say that it’s exaltation is the result of the old boys clubs of literary criticism. But that’s not true.

One reason Franzen has gotten so much praise, and even the re-endorsement of Oprah, is his self-seriousness. He set out to write a Big Book: one about families, environment, Iraq and America. Freedom is like a 19th century English novel with its character studies and subtle social clues. Even the vocabulary of the book, or as Franzen, might say, its lexicon, is comprised of many words I’ve only recently learned the exact meaning of through studying for the GREs.

I wouldn’t say Freedom is my favorite book from the past five years, but it’s the most ambitious book I’ve read since college. The reason Franzen’s book has received so much attention is that he succeeds in his ambition.

This was true in The Corrections, his previous book, which was almost as revered by critics, but I didn’t like. There was the stain of misanthropy through the book, and while Franzen’s prose, as always, was quite readable, I didn’t enjoy reading it. In Freedom, Franzen loves his characters the way you love your elderly dog who has lost control of his bowels. There’s shit everywhere, but what are you going to do? It’s still your dog, and Patty, the protagonists whose character is as enigmatic as anyone else’s, is still Patty.

And just as a fact: Franzen doesn’t give himself access to the internet when he writes. Not to say that’s what makes his book work—he also chews tobacco—but he probably has a point.

Year in Read, 2009

December 31, 2009


I spent most of this year rereading or reading books I should have read a long time ago.

Key:
® – Reread
@ – Aronauer seal of approval

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – @, ®

Earlier: Brief and Wondrous Dreams, ‘Your Adoring Audience Is Clamoring For More Heavy-Handed Sarcastic Wit And Cynicism.’

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Earlier: You Know That Book Everyone Was Talking About Twenty Years Ago? I Just Read It

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – @, ®

Additional recommendation: Slate’s audio book club podcast on The Great Gatsby

Netherland, Joseph O’Neill – @, ®

Additional recommendation: Slate’s audio book club podcast on Netherland
Earlier: Cricket Writing

Diana by Tina Brown
Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Lost City of Z by David Gramm – @
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – @
Blood Dark Track by Joseph O’Neill
Mrs. Dallaway by Virgina Woolf
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
King of the World by David Remnick
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell – @

I know a lot of SATC fans who hate the book, but I thought it was fantastic. Bushnell’s integration of the Carrie “character” as a stand-in for herself is well done, and she is very perspective about the fears and doubts women have about monogomy and motherhood.

The Shadow Club by Neal Shusterman – ®

So funny story: I reread some YA for research for my book.

Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth
Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner – @, ®
The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm – @
How Fiction Works by James Woods
My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather – ®
My Life in France by Julia Child – @

Earlier: Before That Movie Comes Out
Also, the book is way better than the movie.

The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
The Believers by Zoë Heller
Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Smiles on Washington Square by Raymond Federman
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor

Earlier: Flannery O’Connor Short Story Recipe

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – @

This was the only book I paid retail for all year. Gallant was a major influence for Jhumpa Lahiri, and after hearing Lahiri read one of the stories, I couldn’t help but support the publishing industry. I liked this collection more than Varieties of Exile.

102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – @

When I wrote about this book earlier, I did a lousy job of explaining why it’s so great. I’ll try again: Sentence for sentence, it’s hard to argue with the genius of Hemingway. The characters in this book are living a glamorous post-WWI life, but their relationships are meaningless. Over the course of the novel, the vapidness of their lifestyles becomes almost painful. Even afcion, the the one thing that drives the narrative and Jake, is lost to thse empty friendships.

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
Cheever Stories by John Cheever – @

After my inevitable move to the suburbs, I’m going to make a self-aware and pretentious joke and name my dog Cheever. This guy understands America (“Clementina”), the craft of short story writing (“The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well”) and is very honest with American man’s confusion with the women’s movement (“An Educated American Woman”). If you’re interested in the origins of modern American literature, you should read Cheever.

Personal Days by Ed Park

In Which My Blog Becomes a Place for Pull Quotes from Classic Literature

November 18, 2009

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel that is, those with aficion stayed there. …

We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about bulls. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full. Montoya introduced me to some of them. They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. … When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent, there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the should, or a “Buen hombre.” But nearly always there was the actual touching. It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.

The Sun Also Rises

To me, an aficion is something that makes you happy without help from anyone else. To me, that’s ice cream and running. (Writing and reading are both too fraught with disappointment to count as an aficion.) I feel very lucky that there are so many people in my life who have aficion; passionate people usually have interesting things to say.

The Sun Also Rises also served as a reminder (to me) to revisit this Madonna video.

Flannery O’Connor Short Story Recipe

October 6, 2009

Start with 20-something son. Often an aspiring writer, visiting or returning from home after a failed run in a city. In favor of civil rights. Pair with a racist older relative, usually female. Include a gun or a heart condition. Don’t forget a black person. Heat for about twenty to thirty pages. Serve with a death at the end.

I just spent the past month reading all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. And despite this formula, I like her. Her characters aren’t neurotic. There are not trying to figure out their identity or get laid. Mostly, they’re just are selfish and ignorant. Usually, Hobbesian characters don’t appeal to me. But Flannery O’Conner isn’t trying to get our sympathy. She’s just pointing out a truth.

I especially recommend “A View of the Woods.”

I’ve Just Seen A Face

August 6, 2009

I woke up with that Beatles song in my head, which reminded me of “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl,” a Haruki Murakami’s short story which has been made into several YouTube shorts.

I love this story.

Something I don’t love is The Believers by Zoë Heller. Many publications and people have recommended the book, but it was my mom who went so far as to buy me a copy. Her basic endorsement was that she couldn’t put it down. And I can’t either. I started it yesterday, and I’m more than half way. More to the point, I took a local train to keep reading it. But I can’t recommend it the way I recommend “On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl.” It’s silly to compare a fable-like short story to a novel, but I can see that Heller’s writing is quicker and her characters are more drawn than Murakami’s. But despite her technical deftness, her main characters are awful people. And while I get that The Believers is a well done book, I already deal with enough jerks in my life.

Link Bait

July 17, 2009

I hate how effective internet slide shows are. I just gave Slate 11 clicks for their mindless slide show on weird Google logos. Meanwhile, William Finnegan’s excellent profile of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio gets one click because there’s only an excerpt online. Which I guess is the whole problem with the internet economy: effort and financial reward are not related at all.

But read that piece. If you don’t subscribe and you’re cheap, go to a Barnes & Noble and read it. It’ll make you happy that long form journalism still exists.

And if you haven’t yet, buy Finnegan’s incredible book, Cold New World.

Reading, Live

June 3, 2009

Fun fact about reading: it’s a solitary experience. You can join a club or have an electronic machine do it for you, but basically, it’s just you and the words.

That’s why it’s so strange to go to a reading. I generally try to hear my favs speak as often as I know they’re speaking, but the experience is inevitably disappointing. I’ve usually already read what they’re reading and the Q&A after is always filled with stupid Qs, like why did you make this character male?*

I bring this all up because I saw Joseph O’Neill speak last night. He was everything I could want from an author: he kept his selection brief, answered a lot of questions and signed my books. But even in the best of circumstances, relating to a fictional character isn’t the same as relating to a person. Perhaps I should stop being disappointed that hearing a writer read his own words isn’t the same as catching up with a good friend.

*Actual question from a Jhumpa Lahiri reading.

Untitled Things I Hate

February 18, 2009

untitled-bra

• My mood right now.

• Artists and writers who think they’re too good for naming a project. Actually, they’re too lazy. Naming things is difficult and diminishing, but this is a keyword age. Without titles, your work gets lost in the e-ether. No one’s creation is above the semantics of titles.

• This quote from a blog Google Reader recommended:

We all know I can’t read fiction anymore but I hope I always retain my passion for writing it.

Actually, that’s a pretty succinct explanation for the problem facing the publishing industry. But why would anyone like writing without enjoying reading? I mean, other than complete narcissism?

• Speaking of narcissism, I hate self-promoting Gchat, Twitter and Facebook statuses. I’m your e-friend, not your mom.

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Fun Reading

January 31, 2009

5-alison-bechdel-fun-home-53

There’s a lot to criticize in the memoir genre, but for a willfully naïve moment, let’s commend the dual courage to write a book about one’s past. The first courage is obvious: You have to reveal your secrets. The second is faith in your narrative.

We all have fun anecdotes about running into someone on the train or falling in love, but most of life doesn’t fit into a storyline. It’s easy to criticize “characters” from memoirs as flat, but in real life, a lot of people are flat. The honest and successful memoirist has to overcome the narrative failings of existence. This memoirist also has to have an incredible amount faith in her story—that the details of her life can also be symbols and that frankly, that her time has been interesting.

I’m using the pronoun “she” because the finest example of this is Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic novel Fun Home. Truthful and fascinating, as well as being beautifully drawn, Fun Home is the best lesbian coming of age story with a suicidal mortician gay father I know.

And while we’re talking about true stories and Fun Home, below is the list of the books I’m taking with me to Vermont. Some I’m rereading, some I’m chancing and The Diana Chronicles I just think will be fun.

The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 1
Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown
Where I’m Calling From, Raymond Carver
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
King of the World, David Remnick
On Beauty, Zadie Smith

You Know That Book Everyone Was Talking About Twenty Years Ago? I Just Read It

January 22, 2009

burningman1

I can generally how I feel about a book about whether I look forward to the subway ride. While reading Bonfire of the Vanities, I considered playing Pong on the train.

That’s harsh, but fans of Bonfire of the Vanities must agree that the book is misanthropic and too long. The book picked up in the end, but there were characters and descriptions of 80s couture I could do without. That’s not to say Wolfe is wrong in his descriptions of egomaniacal bankers and self-righteous lawyers who take their wives’ aging as a personal betrayal, it’s just that I don’t want to hear about it. Human nature is shit, but why dwell on that?

My ex-step-cousin (my Aunt’s ex-husband’s son) once called Bonfire of the Vanities his favorite book. And no offense to him, I don’t see how a book like that can be a favorite. I enjoyed the first and last two hundred pages and I’m glad I read it, but B of the V was kind of like Atlas Shrugged for New Yorkers. They’re both engaging and thick books with writing that gets the job done, but ultimately the characters are just symbols. And at the end of Bonfire of the Vanity, but what’s the moral of the story? That Hobbes was right?