( So of course you grow up... )
The one I've liked the most so far is Laura Miller's over at Salon. Miller did one of the better interviews with him post IJ back in 1996, asking what I felt were all the right questions (or at least some of the right questions; it's not a long enough interview to nail him down on all of them). Her eulogy this weekend touched for me on the essence of his work, the essential question of empathy and how difficult it is. She articulates a few things about his work that I've always argued, albeit much more poorly:
( a few of Miller's quotes )
I have not yet been able to brave McSweeney's, which is currently posting memories from anyone who had contact with him. But I will say it was a comfort to see that Timothy McSweeney is as devastated and as lost as I feel. It really is bizarre psychic territory, to mourn a person I never met but who affected me so profoundly. What do you do to process a grief like that? Hodge thinks I need to write a eulogy myself, though he seems to have an inflated sense of my status as a Wallace fangirl (it does no good to tell him I am one of many; he thinks I might well be the archfan and thus have a responsibility to the internets to write something brilliant). But I'm not sure what I'd say that Miller hasn't said better, and I'm not sure I can eulogize right now anyway. I'm still doing the Kubler-Ross shuffle.
Anyway...thanks for all the patience and concern in the past week, I love you all. I am doing OK. I have mail for a few of you that has been deferred on account of me being a big old mess but hopefully it'll be on its way shortly.
These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded.
Bold the ones you've read,
underline the ones you read for school,
italicize the ones you started but didn't finish.
add * beside the ones you liked and would (or did) read again or recommend. Even if you read them for school in the first place.
Edit: on helpimarock's suggestions, books I'm most anxious to read but am quite interested in reading are in red.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay*
American Gods [I've heard it's good...but I love Gaiman the graphic novelist, not so much Gaiman the prose stylist, so I never got to it]
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
Angels & Demons
The Blind Assassin
Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov
The Canterbury Tales
The Catcher in the Rye
A Clockwork Orange
Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
The God of Small Things*
The Grapes of Wrath
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* [I know, I know, people love him or hate him. I actually liked this book. Sue me.]
The Historian: a novel
The Hunchback of Notre Dame*
In Cold Blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences [Okay, yes, I know. I'm not sure how I haven't read this one yet. It's on the damn list.]
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell*
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi: a novel [I absolutely despised this book.]
Lolita************ [Absolutely one of my favorites. Because it's brilliant, not because it's dirty. Maybe also a little because it's dirty.]
Love in the Time of Cholera
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex [It's on the list. I am pretty sure I'll love it when I get there.]
Mrs. Dalloway******************** [Transcendent. And I wouldn't use that word lightly.]
The Mists of Avalon
Moby Dick* [Okay, honestly, I'd probably skip the cetology stuff the second time through]
The Name of the Rose
Neverwhere [This book is one of several reasons I in fact did not read American Gods.]
The Once and Future King
One Hundred Years of Solitude*
On the Road
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest*
Oryx and Crake
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Poisonwood Bible
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man*
Pride and Prejudice*
Reading Lolita in Tehran
The Satanic Verses
The Scarlet Letter*
Sense and Sensibility*
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Slaughterhouse-five [It's on my nightstand. Soon.]
The Sound and the Fury******************** [Faulkner's finest, and one of the most important books in my life]
A Tale of Two Cities
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The Time Traveler’s Wife
To the Lighthouse
The Three Musketeers
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
War and Peace
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Yes I know this is overwrought. I'm reading Ann Radcliffe right now. Cut me some slack.
But in case you haven't, the February Harper's will have a new DFW story in it that is, according to rumor, a part of Something Significantly Longer. Which was of course what he said about the Infinite Jest fragments he read and published before that book was actually finished.
Can I get a hallelujah?
That disclaimer out of the way, short story collections are the marketable media we've cultivated to get short fiction writers out there in the world. So review I shall.
A.M. Homes is infinitely more suited to the short form than the long form. Her terse, caustic wit, paired with her amazing capacity for empathy can sustain short work. In long work she invariably succumbs to the contrasting poles of Sentimentality or Scorn (compare the overly sweet Jack to the mean-spirited Music for Torching), and you're left with very little either way. She's first and foremost a humorist; her best work pairs the absurd with the sad, the ridiculous with the lonely. Her adults invariably behave and speak like children, and in this flattened out and almost cartoonish moral landscape, Homes is free to explore the naked desires and confusions of the contemporary setting.
Things You Should Know is a collection that has upped the stakes from Homes' previous work; the author seems to have turned her gaze towards questions of identity in a world of landslides (figurative and literal). Whether we peer through a shapeshifting coyote's eyes at a Californian teenager dieting herself to oblivion, or follow Nancy Reagan on the tightrope between anonymity and celebrity while dealing with her husband's illness, Homes explores the liminal spaces of selfhood. The best of the stories here are restrained and unadorned, leaving the reader room to negotiate the moral and ethical obstacles established everywhere we go.
There are a few stories here that feel like toss-offs (especially compared to the really outstanding stories nestled right next to them). Again, here's that problem I refer to above; the collection as a whole feels uneven, but some of the individual stories are quite brilliant.
I'm a style junkie, and Homes' deliberate spareness gives me little to revel in from a prose standpoint. That said, in the stripped-down texture of her writing, other elements of her work shine: mind and eye are more important than tongue here. At their best, these stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, and amazingly clever.
Anyway, the other totally awesome thing that happened this week was the lecture at the Ransom Center. Because guess who came and gave a talk about Arthur Miller? Tony freaking Kushner.
Yup. I was in a room with the most important living American playwright, talking about one of the most important dead American playwrights. And it was awesome. He is probably one of the best intellectual/artistic lecturers I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.
Besides that, I've spent the week writing scenes from A Diamond in the Window and trying to finish this stupid S.I. story (it's getting close but I'm just not sure how I want to end it). Also all the other reading and nonsense. I've been doing a lot of collage, which is something I like to do when I've written myself into a corner. Cut and paste is just plain therapeutic (plus putting your faith in the magazine gods gives you a chance to make some connections you might not otherwise have made with regards to a story that isn't working).
The cough and sinus infection are still there. I have a doctor's appointment tomorrow, so hopefully it'll stop slowing me down soon. Otherwise things are pretty much ducky.
Every single time he gets a chance to address his more literate readers all he can offer is some defensive populist anti-snob snobbery that says nothing about what a piece of fiction can be called upon to achieve, but which only bemoans the pretention of other more cerebral writers. This little rant has been building up for me for a while, because on some counts I agree with King. I do believe a lot of very quality fiction gets exiled to genre racks as a result of the publishing company's whims. I do believe that the fantastic is fertile grounds, and that plot is not a mark of inferior writing. But when his lament turns its bitter eye on tropes and maneuvers that he finds lacking, one can only see a child who has been hit by stones, stooping down to gather them up just so he can fling them back.
Today's short editorial in the New York Times Magazine bitching about the state of American short fiction is his most recent assault. This year King was the editor of the Best American Short Stories collection. Frankly, I think this was a good idea; I like the diversity of editors that BASS uses. And King, though his work to me is incredibly uneven and erratically literary, is undoubtedly an American storyteller every bit as representative as previous editors of the collection. As the editor of course it's his choice what to include; of course it's his prerogative to scorn some of the lesser choices. But to proclaim that the short story is ailing, that a huge amount is "show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers," and then to argue that this is an indication of the form's decline? Foolishness. Of course a lot of fiction is silly, insipid, and vapid. There's more of it being written then ever before, and the ratio of wheat-to-chaff is never what we might hope for. That's why we have awards judged by different types of people every year; that's why we have the Pushcart and the BASS and the O. Henry, in order to keep a discourse about what we value in fiction. What we value, not just what we want to devalue.
This one essay in and of itself doesn't really bother me that much; I am grouchy and critical too, and someday might want to vent my frustrations in a too-short-to-make-a-real-point editorial somewhere. But this essay in conjunction with a lot of King's other recent bitching and moaning just makes me hostile. Hodge made the mistake of reading out loud to me King's postscript to the end of The Dark Tower (in which book, in case you don't already know, the characters actually meet a character--a writer!--named "Stephen King"). Once again, King becomes defensive about the technique he uses, afraid it will make him "experimental" or "pretentious." In his postscript he claims that most other writers use metafiction to be overly clever and cute and show-offy, but King uses it to create a very genuine discourse about art and creativity. Well, of course. Of course King came up with a use for metafiction no one else ever came up with. When you put it that way, Steve, I have a new respect for your convoluted and BY THE WAY self-conscious opus. You will know the definition of "self-conscious" by now, since you're fond of slinging it around as an accusation.
His acceptance speech for the National Book Award a few years back was a bit more graceful, but still oddly defensive. At one point he accuses the judges of giving him the award as a "token," a way to deal with that annoying pop literature issue: "What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?" Yeah, as if quote unquote "literary writers" have nothing valid to say about their culture. As if there's nothing valid or entertaining to be found in the more obscure literary works up for awards, works that don't stand a chance of selling on the popular market and thus funding another year of work. While I agree that the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is artificial and could do with more crossing, I don't know that pure snobbery accounts for Grisham's lack of literary recognition. And some of King's complaints feel archaic, considering the amount of crossover literary success I've seen in the last ten years; the readers of my generation are as likely to be claiming canon-space for William Gibson, Jonathon Lethem, and Kelly Link as they are for more traditional literary writers, and people like Michael Chabon and Glen David Gold have made a number of us recall the joy to find in pure plot satisfaction.
I feel like there's a more organic way to look at literature, across a spectrum of art and storytelling and entertainment. If King weren't so defensive about his own place on the spectrum (or maybe about where his detractors place him on that spectrum), I think he'd have more interesting things to say about it.
The story is at heart a mystery. The Schluters try desperately to piece together what happened on the night of Mark's accident, aided only by an enigmatic note left by Mark's bedside at the hospital. The mystery of the accident, though, is enclosed in a wider mystery: the mystery of consciousness, understanding, self. To that end Karin Schluter calls in a medical expert, Dr. Gerald Weber, a neurologist and writer who ends up facing his own identity crisis after being faced with Mark's.
Powers' prose is dense and rich, and in some ways he writes like a modernist; there is the same interest in the fractured self, the same homage to the complexity of consciousness, the same intricate wordplay. If Woolf or Faulkner had a background in neurology, they might have explored territory similar to this. And then too there's the indelible touch of Hardy on the novel, the landscape-as-character, the way lives are determined as much by geography as by chemicals and hormones and genetics.
Neurology, anthropology, zoology, psychology--there's a lot of heavy intellectual lifting in this book. Powers sifts his simple story through the scientific advances and ecological disasters of the last few decades. What you get is a narrative as knotty and variegated as mind itself.
Some readers will be turned off by what will no doubt be called excesses, or by the labyrithine writing. It took me nearly three weeks to finish, but I was dazzled. If you are a reader who not only tolerates complexity but craves it, you are Powers' target audience. Challenge yourself to read this book.
The thing she said that stayed with me the most was something she said she learned from James Baldwin, whom she studied with at Mount Holyoke. She said the thing she learned that was the most important was how to behave in the presence of the spirit. That you treat the spirit like you treat an honored guest, invite it in and offer it something to drink. You treat it like a lover, with gentleness and appreciation. That you treat it like a volcano, as a thing unpredictable and mighty. That you don't question the form it picks--that however ludicrous or banal or whatever you shut up and listen to what it's doing. I'm paraphrasing a lot here. But essentially, what she was saying was that you have to entertain all your most far-out ideas, that you can't dismiss any of those voices that come to you. Or that you shouldn't.
This is something I've learned from writers like Haruki Murakami or Aimee Bender or David Foster Wallace or Mary Gaitskill. The idea that you tell the story that's living the most vividly on the inside of your eyelids, and don't worry about who is going to care about urban fetishists or junkies or child tennis prodigies or who is going to believe in a thing like a cat flute or a boy with a pumpkin for a head. Your job isn't to worry about that, at least not on the first go-round. Your job is to shut the fuck up, and listen to the spirit. You can worry about the people who will be listening to you later.
So tell me: how do you entertain the spirit? How do you all invite it in, with a welcome mat or a red light outside your door or with a big open house barbecue? Let's drop the metaphor. When do you feel most in sync with your creative selves? How do you get to that place where you feel like this is really, really happening?
Lo and behold, here's this period costume drama. I watch for a while, trying to figure out what it is, thinking I know the standard Victorian fare. It has Bill Nighy in it, who is awesome, and the plot is really fascinating, sort of high and low all at once. Lots of scandal and gossip but also some serious Shakespearean jealousy and weird class consciousness and women's rights issues. I was so entranced I forgot how shitty I was feeling, but I could not figure out for the life of me what the book was. I finally had to look it up online: He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope. I'd never heard of it.
I ordered it on Amazon the next day. But it's taken almost a year for me to get around to reading it.
There are two, maybe three of you tops who might care, but if anyone is into David Foster Wallace (or wants some insight into the nature of my psychotic bug-eyed obsession with said writer), Dave Eggers' introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest is available here (as reprinted in the LA Weekly). I initially scoffed at the idea of Eggers introducing Wallace, but it's a quite nice introduction and pretty well expresses some of the things that are dazzling about IJ.
I've been so grouchy lately, it's a good time to put up something I'm excited about.
In a related note, I used chapter three from my undergraduate thesis for my critical writing sample in my applications (it's on skepticism, faith, and empathy in Infinite Jest). Upon re-reading it I realized it has everything, everything to do with "The Butterfly Mask," which is the piece of fiction I'm proudest of having written. It's probably not the most academically sound thesis in the world, in large part because it concerns itself with compassion in fiction and that's not a terribly hip subject academically speaking, but it has everything to do with what I want to write. It was good to re-read it. It made me realize that my thesis was not the failure I thought it was, but was rather just...not right for academia. Well, onwards.