Wedding festivities are officially over and I have hundreds of digital photos to prove it. I also have some Polaroids that, when stacked together, look like a pack of baseball trading cards. I understand now why Polaroids won’t (or at least, shouldn’t) die out – it’s not the immediacy of a printed photo, it’s the fact that a Polaroid photo is tangible evidence of a memory plucked from your brain – all hazy and dreamy and kind of diffused. A good Polaroid can distill particularly magical moments to their essence. So when I look at the ones I’ve snapped over the past two months, I can see why I found it so hard to concentrate on books – there were too many people around, too many things to experience and devote myself to. In Greece I wouldn’t even bring a book with me to the beach because I knew I wouldn’t be able to really process the words.
So, I read things that could be processed in short chunks. Right before I left, nogoodforme.com did their amazing style icon series and this post about Marguerite Duras inspired me to grab “Practicalities”, a collection of her very personal essays. Her writing was the right blend of nostalgia, wisdom, ex-pat musing and artistic process rambling for the kind of trip I was on. I couldn’t deal with much fiction so I also read John Gardner’s “On Becoming a Novelist” and enjoyed it the same way I enjoyed “Practicalities” – he was reassuring in his firm advice. He would quote his own writing to prove a point. He knew what he was talking about, even if I didn’t always agree with it.
In Istanbul I wanted to read something kind of fantastic and different, sort of like the place I was in. I hadn’t brought much to read with me, so we went poking around Istanbul looking for the right book store. I was sadly disapointed with the Old Book Market in the Grand Bazaar (mostly Turkish textbooks and overpriced Orhan Pamuk). We found a decent place on the tourist hell strip of Divanyolu Caddesi in Sultanahmet, and quickly found more stores with reasonable prices and better selection across the bridge in Beyoglu. Then, during a quick afternoon rainstorm, found even more charming places in Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul (only a 1.50 lira ferry away). Anyway, the book I eventually chose was “Life on the Golden Horn”, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s collection of letters detailing her of travels through Turkey and Constantinople in the 1700s (she was penpals with like, Alexander Pope). Her experience was a bit more lavish than mine.
And now that I’ve settled into more-or-less normal life again in Montreal, I’ve been devouring books again, so I’ll have more to write about shortly. To begin with, I’ve decided to wade into the teen girl market and check out Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Let’s just say that recently I’ve been that person you see in mall food courts at lunchtime dressed in business casual, eating some kind of crap fast food and reading those big thick books. Sue me.
For reference, since I’ve been really bad at documenting this – books I’ve been reading in 2009:
The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano: It took me forever to finish, but it was amazing. But everyone already knows this.
Pigeon – Karen Solie: I read most of this collection on my thirtieth birthday and it made me realize that Solie is my favourite Canadian poet.
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan: Fascinating.
The Principles of Uncertainty – Maira Kalman: Beautiful and whimsical.
February – Lisa Moore: This book better win all kinds of awards this year because it was fucking awesome. Some of Lisa Moore’s stories absolutely gut me, and I was a little disapointed when that feeling didn’t translate to her first novel, “Alligator”. But man, this one did. It’s gorgeous.
Stripmalling – Jon Paul Fiorentino: God, this book is funny. It kind of has everything: a mix of personal essays, dispatches, reminisces, jokes and comics. Jonny once worked at a Shill Station in Winnipeg, fooled around with his drug dealer, dated, moved in and had a baby with a fellow stripmaller, moved to Montreal, had an early-thirties life crisis, etc. And there’s more! You should read this.
See You Later – Christopher Pike: Shut up. Yes, that is the Christopher Pike you may remember from your youth. In the spirit of documenting everything I am reading in 2009, I couldn’t not mention a book I read while in Toronto a few weeks ago, visiting my parents and, therefore my childhood book collection. Usually when I’m home I like to flip through my old things, and this trip I chose “See You Later”. This was my favourite back then and I wanted to see if it stood the test of time. IT TOTALLY DID. Christopher Pike wrote some fucked up shit (Um, “Whisper of Death”? Or “Scavenger Hunt” where it turns out that two of the students were LIZARDS?, and then he started doing weird sequels of books, which I never got into), but “See You Later” was sort of sweet compared to the rest, and more sci-fi than horror. When these characters go on dates they eat ice cream and ride oil rigs. And there are characters from the future and telepathic aliens and most of all there is a love story. So yeah. A good one.
Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: While on that same trip to Toronto, we caught a screening of “Watchmen”. I wasn’t expecting to love it so much, but I did. The characters fascinated me (I can’t decide who I liked more: the serene yet disconcerting blue-glowy Dr. Manhattan or Rorschach, with his shape-shifting mask and unwavering conviction). I bought the comic soon after and tore through it. I think the movie was an excellent adaptation of the comic – there were some panels that were recreated perfectly in the movie. Surprisingly, I preferred the movie ending to the book – the movie was just more powerful to me – but they are both equally excellent.
So, thumbs up all around! Maybe next I will finally write about “The Savage Detectives”, which I am absolutely loving, but for some reason taking forever to get through.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table – Molly Wizenberg: Orangette is my favourite food blog. I have always loved Molly’s writing and delicate, clean photos and, most importantly, her recipes are consistently killer. Her braised brussel sprouts are a standard in my winter dinner meals, and I’ve made her lemon yogurt cake countless times. I was excited when I found out she got a book deal, and bought the book almost immediately after it was released. As I thumbed through it in the bookstore, a girl approached, leaned forward and pulled another copy off the shelf. “We have the same book,” I said, pointing to mine. We laughed and talked about the blog. “She’s just lovely,” the girl said. The book has a format similar to the Orangette blog – a story followed by a recipe – but, unlike other books I’ve read by bloggers, it doesn’t have that annoying “bloggy” feel. It’s more cohesive than that. She writes a lot about her family, especially her father, who died of cancer when she was in her mid-twenties. She also writes a lot about her husband, who she met through her blog. Some people have been throwing around the MFK Fisher comparison, and she is entirely deserving of it. So yes, like the girl in the bookstore said, Molly is lovely, and so is the book.
Fool the World: The oral history of a band called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz: A few days ago I was looking at our bookshelf and found this book, which Andrew had purchased a while back. I didn’t care much for it at the time, but like I mentioned earlier, I’ve suddenly become a huge Pixies fan. I took it off the shelf thinking I would flip through it idly, pick out a few pages, whatever. In general I don’t read many books about music. First of all, unless you’re a big fan of the band or musician, it’s easy to feel like you’re filling your head with worthless facts. Or, often the writing in music books is just so-so. It’s a hard balance. Anyway, so this book? I got really into it. It’s an oral history, so it just jumps back and forth between various people speaking, and as someone who only recently got the Pixies switch flipped in their head, there’s satisfaction in reading this book while listening to their albums. It also does away with the bad writing problem in music books because it’s so chatty. It’s the ultimate in liner notes. Plus, it helps that they were charming or at least interesting, especially Kim Deal. I like knowing that Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields auditioned to be their drummer, and I like reading Kim Deal describe her adolescence (“I’m like 15, 16, 17, talking about why “Dominance and Submission” is a better Blue Oyster Cult song than “Godzilla” ever was. Just doing shit like that, just pouring over the record collection. Smoking pot. Snowing, constantly snowing, and doing drugs.”” Also, she was a cheerleader.) And I like reading about how everyone thought Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black was really “feminine” at first. I didn’t even know his real name wasn’t Frank Black. And he broke up the band via fax (kind of) and that U2 only paid the band $750 per gig when they toured with them?! Etc. Useless facts, yes, but I had a lot of fun reading the book.
There’s a powerful and heartbreaking article about David Foster Wallace in the New Yorker that gives frank details about his last few days and discusses the unpublished novel that will be coming out next year. I hadn’t heard anything about “The Pale King” prior to this article and was surprised to read that it’s about a group of employees working for the I.R.S (funny, considering that I pointed out that accounting-related footnote when I read “Brief Interviews”.) From the article:
As Michael Pietsch points out, in choosing the I.R.S. as a subject Wallace had “posed himself the task that is almost the opposite of how fiction works,” which is “leaving out the things that are not of much interest.” Wallace’s solution was to overwhelm his seemingly inert subject with the full movement of his thought. His characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the robust sincerity of his writing—his willingness to die for the reader—would keep you from condescending to them.
Wallace began the research for “The Pale King” shortly after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” He took accounting classes. He studied I.R.S. publications. “You should have seen him with our accountant,” Karen Green remembers. “It was like, ‘What about the ruling of 920S?’ ” He enjoyed mastering the technicalities of the I.R.S. bureaucracy—its lore, mind-set, vocabulary.
I’m an accountant, but not a tax accountant by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, most people are surprised to learn that an overwhelming amount of accountants know very little beyond the basic tax facts (that’s why we have a tax department at work! that’s why there are people who actually specialize in tax accountancy!), but I totally understand what he could see in focusing on it as a jumping point for his book.
The article is here.
And you can read an excerpt from The Pale King too.
Am currently reading “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” by David Foster Wallace. The blurbs on the back make it seem like it’s a veritable laff riot, but it’s actually pretty bleak. But I guess all of his writing is like that, a complicated mix of fun and misery.
This is just a small inconsequential portion of a footnote in the story “Octet” that does not have any special meaning out of context from the story, but I would’ve been that one person out of a thousand, so I’m gonna point it out (in the footnote DFW is doing the meta thing and talking about what he was trying to do in the story and stuff he could’ve done if it hadn’t fallen apart):
“The second part of the “Q” part of the Quiz spends five lines constructing a possible analogy between the world’s joy/misery ratio and the seminal double-entry “A = L + E” equation of modern accountancy, as if more than one person out of a thousand could possibly give a shit.”
I would’ve gotten a kick out of that.
John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert from The Office) adapted the collection of short stories into a movie, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turned out. The trailer is available over here.
How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman: I love writing books. It’s vaguely embarrassing, I guess – there’s something a little uncouth about admitting to reading writing books, kind of like saying you read self-help or new age or whatever – but, they’re fun and sometimes helpful. I read an article about this book on the Guardian, and it made me giggle. I realized they had it in stock at the bookstore down the street from my office, so I picked it up one day at lunch. It’s a hilarious thing, the kind of book that makes you laugh out loud on the metro or while eating McDonalds in the food court (uh, not that I did that or anything). The book is littered with wisdom like, “Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half a kitten. It is not as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess.” or reminders like, “An unprincipled gold digger who gives twenty dollars to a beggar is enchanting. A crusading human rights lawyer who volunteers at an animal shelter and also pauses on his way to court to give twenty dollars to a beggar makes us gag.” I mean, this is stuff that we as writers know deep down (or should know), but still sometimes give in to. Maybe not on the exagerated level demonstrated in the book, but in little ways that can still fundamentally sabotage the book you’re working on. Definitely recommended for those of us with a novel hiding somewhere in our computer files or head.
Anagrams – Lorrie Moore: I read this book a few years ago, loved it, and then had to return it to the library. I found it in a bookstore in Vermont this past weekend and bought a copy for myself. I couldn’t stop myself from rereading it, even though I’m currently in the middle of two books. Lorrie Moore is most successful at short stories and one of the reasons I love this book so much is that she’s managed to really integrate the short story format into a novel. Moore is also the queen of funny/sad, although upon second reading, I was especially struck by the sadness of the story. The book is an approximation of an anagram, different characters refracted into different situations. Almost an anagram, but not quite. You’re never quite sure what’s really happening and what’s being imagined and even when you’re told up front that certain characters are imaginary, you’ll probably cry when they have to leave. Lorrie Moore is definitely in my top 5 list of favourite writers; I’ve learned so much about writing from her books. And, after a few years of not publishing much, she has a novel coming out in 2009. I’m psyched.
Drown – Junot Diaz: I’m in the middle of reading “Pride and Prejudice”, but it’s slow going. I needed a little reading boost, so I devoured “Drown”, Junot Diaz’s first book, a collection of short stories. I took the advice of the scores of Best of 2007 lists that declared “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” best book ever, and read it this past summer (in 2008). I really, really loved it. And this collection of short stories has the same elements I loved about Oscar Wao – great pacing, freshness, a style that’s not distracting from the stories, heartbreaking details, etc. I think the title story “Drown” is my favourite, or maybe “Fiesta, 1980”. While doing some Internet searching, I found this youtube video from the Google campus. Turns out they get authors to come by at lunch to read and talk about their work (there are also videos for folks like Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain). Yet another reason to wish you worked at Google too. I would much rather listen to Junot Diaz than dial into a “lunch n learn” conference call about revenue recognition. (P.S. I think it’s funny that the Google employee describes “Drown” as “super excellent”).
Wisdom – Andrew Zuckerman: It’s kind of unfair to say I’ve “read” this book, since it’s really the kind of book that you work your way through slowly, picking and choosing. Caroline gave me this gorgeous, huge book for Christmas, and I’ve had it by my bed since then. Sometimes I flip through it to look at the photos, and sometimes I open to random pages and read. It’s a meditation on wisdom, different people (everyone from Dame Judi Dench to Desmond Tutu to Graham Nash) giving their take on wisdom. It’s especially good to have nearby on days when I’m feeling kind of down; it gives perspective.
My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals – Melanie Dunea: This is another fun book to leaf through (also, a Christmas present, this time from Andrew’s parents. Basically, books are the perfect present for me.) When you take 50 famous chefs and ask them to describe their ultimate last meal, you’re going to get a variety of answers, but you’re sure to find foodies standbys like foie gras and caviar and truffles in the mix. The accompanying pictures are amazing (yo, there’s Anthony Bourdain, naked, except for a strategically placed marrow bone) and there are even recipes for elements of the chef’s meals. Incidentally, my Last Meal would probably involve a bacon cheeseburger and an ice cream sundae. No need for foie gras. And it would be eaten outdoors, in the summer, with a glass of cold white wine, even though white wine totally doesn’t go with bacon cheeseburgers.