Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Another List of Books from the World's Most Infrequent Blogger

“Even you…may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very worth-while to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it.” – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

The Books I Loved Best in 2015

The Country of Ice-Cream Star by Sandra Newman. A linguistically inventive and completely immersive novel set in a shattered future. “Then I remember ice cream been a food I never taste. I wonder what my mama dream to name me for this food, as if she name me Something Lost.” 

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. A Christian missionary travels to another planet while his own civilization crumbles. At first, the Oasans (the “aliens”) seem painfully boring. Then we find out why. Strange and new and beautiful and affecting. “Let’s not go there.” “That’s what people say about places where they already are.”

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. One of those unforgettable books you press on everyone (have you read this? you must read this! here, read this, read this, read this). Ignore the James Wood quote on the cover of My Brilliant Friend: it is not “amiably peopled.” It is vividly-viciously-truthfully-brutally-gratingly-graspingly-ferociously-searchingly-beautifully-wickedly-stridently-strivingly peopled. There's barely an amiable person in the whole series.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. One of those novels I immediately declared my intention of not reading because “I don’t like novels where the main characters are animals.” Then I remembered the last time I said this and was proven wrong (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski) and the time before that (Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone). Apparently I do like novels where the main characters are animals and the writing is profound and contains multitudes. 

After Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor. Another utterly clear exploration of what it means to be a Buddhist without "beliefs." "Dharma practice exposes the limits of human thought and language when confronted with the puzzle of why we are here at all." 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Book Awards, 2014

  1. Funniest (Because Truest) Book of the Year: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. Should be required reading for all young people. Also old people who were lost as young people and searching the map for the you-are-here-but-you-will-get-out-of-here arrow.
  2. How Have I Not Read This Writer Before Prize: Edna O’Brien for her memoir Country Girl, followed by Edna O’Brien for her novel Country Girls. Utterly beautiful sentences. (Plus, second half of memoir has some juicy literary-celebrity tales.)
  3. This year's Gary Shteyngart, Will You Marry Me, Oh Wait, I Forgot, You’re Already Married Award goes to Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. 
  4. Best Novel About What It Means to Be a Member of the Human RaceStation 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. A novel about the end of the world, and more importantly, what happens after.
  5. Most Beautiful and Heartbreaking Book of the Year: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.
  6. Small and Perfect: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. A novel that takes you into its confidence. The fragmentary (but never confusing) form means you don’t have to read sentences like “In the fall we discussed the possibility of moving to the country. I called a real estate agent and began studying listings.”
  7. Novel I Hated: The Circle by Dave Eggers. Not very convincing thesis disguised, not very well, as novel. (Last year the award went to The Dinner by Herman Koch for the exact same reason.) 
  8. Novel I Loved: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. A strange, surprising, funny, tragic, provocative novel with yes, a thesis, but also, a compelling voice. Also: Best Title of the Year.
  9. Novel I Wanted to Love But Couldn't, Quite: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I couldn't get over the wizards decloaking. Normally I don’t have a problem with cloaking devices or wizards or oceans at the end of the lane. Too much supernatural technology, maybe, made the fiction feel unworkable here.
  10. Read It and Get Schooled Award: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass. I read this so that I could teach it. It teaches itself. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading List 2013: Eight I Loved

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. You will read into the night, miss your subway stop, forget to eat. Near the end, you will read in small draughts. Finishing will be a bereavement.   
  2. Tenth of December by George Saunders. Saunders will break your heart. Every story. Every time. 
  3. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Meticulous, judicious, painstakingly documented. Still leaves you (what the) stunned and slack-jawed (hell?).
  4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. How to make sense of war, torture, guns, bombs, refugees, orphans, human trafficking, betrayal, exile, despair. Goodness. Kindness. Hope.      
  5. Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska. How to make sense of addiction. (Begin with the truth, as Bydlowska does here.)
  6. Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel.  Remote mother, lost father, theories of attachment, the making of art, and other lifelong puzzles. Graphic memoir, brilliantly and beautifully done.
  7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaimon. Small book yet spacious enough to contain the Big Bang, the history of myth, and one particular childhood.
  8. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Smart, skillful novel tracing the many possible lives of the heroine, born in 1911, and her many possible deaths.       

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Drink from Water Everywhere

The central Sierras of Argentina are dry, naturally dry because it is a semi-arid region (and it is August, the heart of winter), and unnaturally dry because – well, I can’t follow the conversations in Spanish, but my sister says the topic ruins more dinner parties than politics, religion or soccer, so I assume the unnatural reasons include climate change and other forms of human stupidity.

During the day we walk up into the hills, through scrub and thorny bushes, and I realize I am unconsciously listening for trickling water, which I associate with walking in the wild, but there is only the wind in dry branches, and our feet slipping on red rock, and other Waste Landic sounds.

In the city, it is easy to forget the earth. Cities are in fact built on rivers of forgetfulness. Out here, you see how long a vine holds on before it withers, how the husk remains after the roots are dead. How dependent we are on the water that runs beneath the earth.

I am not the only one missing this sound. My sister’s landlord has built a fountain near his studio that endlessly recycles its water, and one of her students shows me a falling rain app on his iPad.

At night, the south wind tries to dismantle the house. It is the loudest wind I have ever heard, and I worry it will pull down the trees. My sister says any tree standing can withstand the wind: its roots are deep in the earth looking for water. I think of a scrap of another poem, copied out in my journal in Bhutan, a translation of Rilke: these days / which seem dry and entirely fruitless to you / have roots between the stones and drink from water everywhere.

Still, I am nervous walking back to my place in the dark, expecting to be struck at any moment by flying roof tiles or logs or the whirling cab of a small truck. But even in my anxiety, I have to stop and gaze at the night sky.

It is the most beautiful sky I have ever seen, first because there is no light pollution, and secondly, because it is glitters with far more stars than the northern sky, in constellations I do not recognize, with the luminous arc of Milky Way stretching all the way across. After several nights of Googling, I can easily find the Southern Cross, and the bright spots of the Magellanic Clouds, but am too dazzled to recognize anything else.

One night I hear the sound of water trickling through the flagstones outside. In the morning, I cannot see any sign of rain. Everything is so parched that water disappears almost instantly into the earth. But then I notice: there is a sharpness around the edges of things, and the dirt path is firmer beneath my feet.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tribes of Liars

This time in June always reminds me of those long days in grade school just before summer vacation, when we were kept occupied by Twenty Questions and the same riddles year after year involving matches, ice, goldfish, and some kid whose mom was a doctor.

The riddle that really intrigued me involved a guy, a Tribe of Liars, and a question.

The guy is lost in a jungle occupied by two tribes: the Tribe that Always Tells the Truth, and the Tribe that Always Lies. After many days, he comes across a tribesperson at a fork in the path. He needs to know which fork leads out of the jungle, but he can’t tell if he's facing a truth-teller or a liar, and he can only ask one question. What can he ask to ensure that he gets the right answer?

For me, the real riddle was why he only got one question. Was one of the tribes also the Tribe that Would Kill You If You Asked More than One Question? I could suspend disbelief for a Tribe of Truth-Tellers and a Tribe of Liars, but this other condition was just inexplicable.

Listening to Mayor Ford’s evasions and equivocations about the crack video this past month, I felt like the guy in the jungle. What one question, I started wondering, could we ask that would ensure a truthful answer? And then I realized it wouldn't matter how carefully we worded the question, because there is no rule in place to compel the Mayor to answer honestly, or at all. Our powerlessness in this situation is the real riddle. 

When people want to speak honestly, they tell the simple truth. When they believe they can lie with impunity, they flat-out lie. When they want to lie but are afraid of being caught out, they equivocate. Equivocations are easy to spot because there is something off about the language; it ducks and dodges and veers away. An equivocation might be partially true, or technically true, or true if you squint one eye and shut the other, but it arises out of the same intention as the flat-out lie: the intention to deceive.

In these last days before summer vacation, I believe we know the answer to our question, but we’re still baffled by the conditions that surround the asking and the answering, and the fact that when elected officials deceive us, we can't do anything about it. 

Well, except vote.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Cowboys and aliens and spies

Spent the weekend on the couch reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a fluidly-written, extensively-researched masterpiece of synthesis and even-handedness. But there is just so much weirdness and wrongness to process that half-way through, I realized I was developing an odd immunity. Sailing to Italy to find treasures buried in former lifetimes? Uh huh. Universe four quadrillion years old? Uh huh. Writing so revelatory it will cause the uninitiated to jump out windows or die of pneumonia? Sure, why not.

The Church of Scientology infiltrated government offices around the world? Uh huh. Harassed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt status? OK. Woman with legal complaint against the Church found with slit wrists, two suicide notes, three bullets in chest and one in head, and it’s still not declared a homicide? Hmm. Next?

Defections and disappearances and secret bases? Cowboys and aliens and spies? Yeah. Uh huh. All of it.

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, T.S. Eliot wrote. And some humankind, it would seem, can’t bear any at all.

This book is not for sale in Canada or the U.K. Apparently we have libel laws that would only make it easier for the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology to win a lawsuit against the publisher. But I am full of admiration for Lawrence Wright for having the courage and the skillfulness (in the ordinary and the Buddhist sense) to take this on. I hope he gets another Pulitzer. (And makes a gazillion dollars, in case he has to fight lawyers on billion-year retainers.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Yesterday I finished reading a Frankennovel.  An award-winning Frankennovel, no less.

A Frankennovel is stitched together out of good and bad parts and brought to lurching life by an artificial external energy source (usually a jolt called Publication). The good parts are shapely and in working order, the flawed parts uneven or mismatched or bolted together.

But flaws are not the problem; readers will overlook or forgive or forget the flaws of living novels.

Frankennovels feel to me like exercises in novels. Like the author wanted to Write a Novel, and so assembled the parts, and pieced them together with skill. But the story started off dead, and remains dead at heart. 

Then I thought about the award, and wondered if it’s the reader’s job to bring the beating heart. Maybe the failing was mine. While contemplating the question, I came across this line in Peter Schjeldahl's review of an exhibition of abstract art at MOMA:

“The proof of any art’s lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it’s something that a person needed to do and which wakens and satisfies corresponding needs in us.”*

Not every novelist can write in the fever dream that Garcia Marquez says produced One Hundred Years of Solitude.  But that compulsion is necessary for lesser novels as well. What Schjeldahl calls a ”comprehensive emotional necessity” never arises from the desire for publication or from the idea of Writing a Novel (or Being a Writer). It’s a love affair with the story. That is the beating heart. 

* Schjeldahl, Peter. "Shapes of Things." The New Yorker: 7 Jan. 2013: 68