Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term. […]
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
David Foster Wallace's "F/X Porn" was originally published in 1998, but the problems it addresses in blockbuster filmmaking (namely, the focus on action at the expense of humanity and emotion) are still with us. Some choice quotes:
There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.
The Inverse Cost and Quality Law ... states very simply that the larger a movie's budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be.
This is the third year I've kept tabs on what I read (here's 2009 and 2010). My number's down from last year, when I read 30 books; this year, I finished 22 and abandoned two at various stages. And that decrease becomes more stark when you realize that quite a few of my choices this year were graphic novels, which take much less time to read than traditional ones. I'm not totally sure why the number went down, or even if that's something I should be concerned about. I was always working on one book or another, and (typical for me) I'd start a new book immediately after I'd finished the one before. I think it's because I traveled more in 2011 than ever before (both for work and myself), and because I finished the year with Justin Cronin's The Passage, which runs 800 tightly scripted pages and is not a journey to be taken lightly. Yet I'm not doing this as a contest, and my goal isn't to set a new personal record every year (if only because I'd eventually have to stop working, eating, and sleeping to squeeze in more titles). I just like keeping the list because I enjoy watching patterns emerge in my reading habits, whether it's seeing recommendations from certain friends appear with more frequency or uncovering certain genre patterns. I sought out more humor writing in 2011 than ever before, and I also explored more memoirs and nonfiction. Picking a favorite is almost impossible, but for sheer emotional power and ambition, The Pale King was hard to beat. Anyway, here's a chronological list of what I read in 2011. As always, suggestions for future reads are welcome.
The Somnambulist (2007), Jonathan Barnes There's a ton of potential in Barnes' historical fantasy-thriller, including the pleasing device of having the reader experience time travel from the perspective of the characters who aren't traveling through time. (So our narrative moves forward as progressive meetings with the time traveler are earlier in his life.) But the final product was too cute by half, and suffered from some of the pacing and dialogue issues that trouble first novels. I finished it out of sheer commitment to the project.
And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft (2009), ed. Mike Sacks For a comedy nerd, this is a fantastic read. Sacks talks with a smart group of comedy writers to pick their brains about how they got into the industry and what they think is funny. The interviews are introduced with biographical chunks that are a little too cheesy, but the talks themselves are worth it.
Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stores (2010), Mike Birbiglia Mike Birbiglia is a hilarious comic who's found success by shifting away from typical sets and telling longer narratives that weave in jokes; when I saw him a couple years ago, his show was nothing but a few stories drawn out to epic length. Those stories work wonderfully on the stage, but they don't translate that well to the page because Birbiglia commits the sin that many stand-ups do when they write a book: he assumes that a transcript of his act will work as a humorous essay. But humor written is far different from humor spoken and performed. What feels natural out loud reads as choppy and far too short, meaning much of Sleepwalk With Me reads like half-formed pieces. There are some good punch lines in here, but you're better off hearing them than reading them.
The Likeness (2008), Tana French I really dug In the Woods, French's first novel, and The Likeness is just as good. It's not a sequel exactly, but a sequential novel involving a supporting character from the first book and now told from that character's point of view. It's a solid device that lets French poke around in whole new personalities while keeping the story rooted in the world readers have come to enjoy. Great literary mystery.
I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All (2010), ed. Judd Apatow The title doesn't lie: some of these stories are bitter, weird, and intentionally off-putting, while others are plain anti-humor, anti-drama, and anti-enjoyable. Still, there are some highlights, including Paul Feig's piece about his brief flirtation with sports announcing (imported from Feig's Kick Me) and Conan O'Brien's "Lookwell" pilot. Some of the dramatic pieces are good, too, but overall the collection is pretty hodgepodge.
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010), Dan Charnas Dan Charnas used to be a talent scout for Profile Records and later the head of the rap division for American Recordings, meaning he had a front-row seat to the rise and bloat of hip-hop as a cultural force. His book is a dense but readable history of hip-hop from a business perspective, charting the path the music took from blowing out New York basements to dominating pop culture worldwide. Great read.
Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence (2002), Paul Feig Now this is humor writing. Feig has worked on a number of TV series and films (he directed Bridesmaids), but it's his role as creator of "Freaks and Geeks" that earned him a place in TV history. His personal essays about growing up as a weird, repressed little geek are heartbreaking but hilarious, and anyone who's seen "Freaks" will recognize many, many story lines in Feig's own childhood. A fantastic memoir.
What I'd Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats (2008), Jack Handey It sounds stupid and unoriginal to call something "laugh-out-loud funny," but the phrase genuinely applies here. Jack Handey's quick essays are dependably hilarious, but the books packs so many of them together that it's easy to overload. The book feels like an ideal bathroom reader. Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (2010), Rachel Held Evans I don't agree with some of Rachel Evans' conclusions, but then, the book is about learning to live in those kinds of tensions. Her background mirrors my own in many ways: politically and theologically conservative upbringing, plenty of time with her church's youth group, and a growing sense of unease at the way some of the things she was taught didn't mesh with her developing understanding of the world around her. She's still a believer (as am I), but she's no longer on the same path as her parents or peers because she started asking tough questions and realizing that some of them don't have easy answers (if they have answers at all). If you grew up in a Southern church and/or went to a private religious university, this is worth your time.
Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Paul Feig Brilliant and sad and wonderful. Feig re-creates his romantic misadventures with amazing detail, and the brief chapters make for an easy (if cringe-inducing) trip through one repressed boy's rocky sexual discoveries.
The Pale King (2011), David Foster Wallace Wallace is my favorite author. The first thing of his I read was Infinite Jest, and after that it was over. I had to get everything. My heart broke when he committed suicide, and I met the release of The Pale King, his unfinished final work, with equal parts anticipation and sorrow. I was wowed by the book, but it's definitely a partial novel. The bare bones of a story are there, and so many sequences channel the humanity and brilliance of Wallace as well as anything he ever wrote, but it's ultimately more a coda to his career than a swan song. It's definitely one I'll revisit. Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Jonathan Lethem Lethem's first novel is a compelling mix of retro-futurism and detective noir. It didn't hit me as hard as The Fortress of Solitude or some of his essays, but it was still fun to see where he got his start. Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson Absolutely beautiful. Every sentence is a finely carved work of art, and I found myself reading more slowly as the novel went on so I could revel in Robinson's pace and style. It's also one of the most realistic and moving depictions of faith and struggle that I've ever read. Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann McCann's novel has a number of wonderful scenes and ideas, but it's also one of those "disparate stories that are tangentially connected" books that feels like a shortcut to a novel instead of an actual profound narrative. The Magician King (2011), Lev Grossman I really liked The Magicians, so I was excited to get this when it dropped over the summer. The sequel is thinner than the original — the page count is smaller and the typeface is bigger — but it's still a great narrative about two characters working from different emotional places to try and achieve the same result. That said, I had the wind knocked out of me by the ending. It didn't feel like a legitimate or organic twist, but a forced and overly bitter way to make the main character grow up a little. The disappointing final pages colored my feelings about the rest of the book, but I'd like to dig back into this one in a couple years and see how I feel. Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli I decided to catch up this year with a few Batman graphic novels that I'd always meant to read, and I figured Year One was a good place to start. It's a good book, just four collected issues, but I liked the approach Miller took to plugging some of the gaps in the hero's early years. Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Alan Moore, Brian Holland What a terrifying, riveting story. The hardback edition nicely fleshes out the issue's history with background info, character sketches, and so on, but all you really need is Moore's wicked little one-shot. This is the merciless Joker that Christopher Nolan brought to life in The Dark Knight, not the cavorting goofball of so many comic book and cartoon stories. One of the all-time greats. Batman: The Long Halloween (1997), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Loeb and Sale's Long Halloween is a cool idea, unfolding over a year as a holiday-themed serial killer makes life difficult for the denizens of Gotham City, but I found myself groaning at the overly orchestrated dialogue. Comic book dialogue tends to hit one or two words in every sentence with additional force conveyed in bold text, but that means taking the narrative control away from the reader. Good dialogue has its own flow, but I found Long Halloween unwilling to let that flow build on its own. Still, a fun read. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (2011), Patton Oswalt Like most comedians, Patton Oswalt is a great public speaker and an awful writer. Where Birbiglia's long-form comedy has at least some similarities with printed essays, Oswalt's style doesn't really work on the page. He's fantastic at knowing how to make a bit work on stage, but he's not nearly as skilled at organizing his ideas into chapters (or even coherent narratives). I checked this out on faith, but I found myself skimming almost immediately. I barely remember finishing. Faithful Place (2010), Tana French (abandoned) As a fan of French's previous two novels, I was sad that this one didn't connect for me. I quit after a while, but I might be able to find a way in if I wait a while and come back to it. Batman: Dark Victory (1999), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Again, another decent story undercut by rocky dialogue. Still, I'm something of a sucker for Batman origin stories, and this introduction of Robin was fun to read. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), David Foster Wallace (abandoned) I'd never tackled Brief Interviews before, and I had to quit when the bitterness became overwhelming. It's not like I didn't know that was the point of the book; Wallace's focus here is as sharp as ever, and he digs unforgivingly into the sad and awful world of semi-fictional men. Still, it was a little too much for me to take. As a Wallace fan, I plan on coming back to this one, though I might have to do it in small sips instead of bigger gulps. The Passage (2010), Justin Cronin Cronin's novel (his first) hooked me from the start, opening with a sad vignette about a poor woman and her lonely child, but I didn't know just how emotionally invested I'd become until major characters went missing and I found myself saddened by the loss. The Passage feels at times like a perfect mix of I Am Legend and The Stand, but Cronin digs into the hearts and minds of his characters with more skill than your typical genre author. The novel's first third is sprawling and dense, as Cronin sets up the viral infection that will eventually turn a dozen unlucky people into vampire-like monsters whose disease will unmake the world, and things get even bigger when he abruptly jumps forward almost a hundred years to pick up the plot in the postapocalyptic wasteland of future America. Yet he makes it all work, weaving together big stories and great characters in a classic page-turner. I had more fun getting lost in this world than I'd had with a book in a long time, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. (This is the first in a planned trilogy.) A great read.
I read 30 books this year, which is a pretty satisfying number for a man with several jobs and the various commitments that come with being newly married. I started and quit on three more, and though I get into the specifics on those below, the bottom line is that life is far too short to waste it reading bad books. Books require a time commitment unmatched by other media, so while I'll usually push through a film to see if it can redeem itself, there's a world of difference between losing two hours and forfeiting two to three weeks. It's remarkably liberating to live like this, too. I'll die not having read a tenth of the books I want to read or should read, so spending extra seconds with bad ones is foolishness. Here's a chronological list of what I read this year (based on order read, not publication date), with more after the jump. As always, I'm open to suggestions about what to read next.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) (unfinished), Max Brooks Brooks takes the Studs Terkel approach and creates an account of a zombie war told through the eyes of those who survived it. It's a neat idea, but it starts to fall apart after a while. For one, the people all talk in a kind of melodramatic prose that might've been more acceptable as narration, not dialogue. The book's also too long, and the fragmented narrative never really builds momentum. I quit reading when the choppiness of the presentation and lack of a propulsive story became too much. (Not to mention Brooks' melodramatic prose, which reads like hundreds of pages of jacket copy.)
Eating the Dinosaur (2009), Chuck Klosterman Klosterman's one of the best pop culture writers out there, and his latest essay deals in fewer absolutes than earlier collections. He's more willing to explore causes and effects than finding support for impossible arguments, and the resulting work makes him feel more human.
Chronic City (2009), Jonathan Lethem Lethem's a deceptively good writer. Much of Chronic City is told in first person through the eyes of Chase Insteadman, and I made the mistake of conflating the character's insubstantiality with Lethem's skill as a storyteller. Late in the book, when the action shifts briefly to a different viewpoint, Lethem's own style came roaring back, and I realized just how much work had gone into crafting an entirely different feel for his narrator. The story's a classic Lethem mix of pop culture and surreal fantasy, and definitely worth checking out.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip into the Life, Work, and Mind of David Foster Wallace (2010), David Lipsky A friend of mine slipped me a review copy before this hit shelves, and I devoured it. Wallace is probably my favorite author, and I was so saddened when he committed suicide in 2008. Lipsky's book is one long transcript of his time interviewing Wallace over the course of several days at the end of the book tour Wallace undertook in 1996 to support Infinite Jest. The men talk about fiction, emotion, stories, love, family, music, everything. It's a fantastic volume because it captures the immediacy of the long talks that animate road trips, as well as the mundane details that come with schlepping across the country in an old sedan. Wallace speaks in the same rambling, aspirational style that marked his prose, and reading this book was like getting him back, if only for a few days.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), Mark Harris One of the best books about Hollywood, period, as well as a fantastic examination of the way films affect culture and vice versa. Harris tracks the five films that contended for the best picture Oscar in the spring of 1968 from their inception through the awards and aftermath, and his copious research is supported by dozens of personal interviews. A fantastic look at the relationships and economics that drive art.
King Dork (2006), Frank Portman I finally picked this up after having it recommended to me at least a year ago, and I'm glad I did. Portman's coming-of-age story absolutely nails the emotional hell that is high school, so much so that I was almost uncomfortable reading about his young hero's lonely quest for survival. But the book's hilarious, smart, and quick. Coincidentally, this is another mystery that puts the emphasis on the people instead of the story (it's as if my subconscious was preparing me for the finale of "Lost" by reading these), but Portman pulls it off thanks to his focus on great characters and the way he actually lands the ending.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), Anne Lamott Absolutely fantastic. Anne Lamott details her youth and talks about her gradual coming to faith after years of bouncing between beliefs, and her description of the moment she converted is dazzling in its honesty. She writes of her life as a single mom and talks with humor and compassion about friends, death, hope, and family. One of my favorites of the year.
Stitches: A Memoir (2009), David Small A quick, sad read. David Small underwent throat surgery as a teen that left him mostly voiceless, and this graphic novel is his memoir of the event. He had an unhappy, clouded childhood, and this book is a way for him to mourn a host of losses.
20th Century Ghosts (2007), Joe Hill Joe Hill's full name is Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen. I enjoyed his debut, Heart-Shaped Box, and this collection of his short stories reinforced the fact that he's now the better writer than his father. His horror stories are like the elder King in his prime, but the great thing is that these stories cover all genres. Some are surreal, some fantasy, and many just finely realized examinations of growing up. "My Father's Mask" is as creepy and visually compelling as a David Lynch flick, while "The Widow's Breakfast" is a straight-ahead story about a rail-riding hobo in the Depression. "Better Than Home" is a sweet story about a challenged boy and his dad connecting through baseball, while "Best New Horror" scared me completely.
Blockade Billy (2010), Stephen King The best thing about this novella was that it didn't take long to finish. I grew up on King, and until a recent bout of purging owned a copy of everything he'd written, so I've been able to chart his various ups and downs from one project to the next. However, he's now almost completely given in to the temptations of gimmickry and laziness, and his formerly plot-driven stories have been replaced by a kind of back-in-my-day bitchiness that robs his narratives of their ability to connect. He's also clunkier than ever, shoving in badly situated pop culture references that are usually nothing more than nods to whatever beach read he's just finished in his spare time. I know that a part of me will always be morbidly curious about his latest work, but I also know that this is nothing more than the hangover of reading It at 14 and being spellbound.
Downtown Owl (2008), Chuck Klosterman Klosterman's essay style boils down to "This is like this because of course it is." Or "This is basically what you think it is, but for reasons you never even knew you'd thought about and would probably reject if you ever considered them." It's a fun enough use of a few basic declarative patterns, but it's not quite enough to give his first novel real impact. He cuts between the lives of three residents in a small town leading up to a disastrous winter storm, and though he's capable of nailing certain speech rhythms and of capturing the utter boredom of youth, every character feels carved from the same Klosterman-shaped block of wood. Worth checking out for fans of Chuck, but not his most entertaining work.
The Terror (2007), Dan Simmons I remembered almost nothing about this book before starting it except a capsule review on The A.V. Club that looked on it favorably. I've never been a big historical fiction reader, and it's because too often it feels like a parlor trick, no matter how elaborately done or thoroughly researched. I'd rather read a nonfiction book or a fictional narrative than try to split the difference. But one of the (many) reasons The Terror worked for me is that Dan Simmons used real people who are mostly obscure to modern readers, allowing for a gripping what-if scenario set in a real time and place that didn't feel hokey. His sprawling novel uses the Franklin Expedition of the 1840s, which attempted to chart the Northwest Passage, as a springboard for supernatural horror. The book's first two-thirds are its strongest, particularly for the way Simmons dryly and accurately deals with the reaction of the men to the presence of an unknown and unbeatable monster that begins to terrorize them when their ships get snowed in. He doesn't quite build up enough story to justify some of the developments at the end, though. He's much better at crafting a gripping, suspenseful tale of men driven mad by circumstance.
Stardust (2009) (unfinished), Joseph Kanon I quit after 40 pages or so. When I was younger, I refused to give up on books, no matter what it took to slog through them, but I now know that life is too short to spend even a few weeks of it reading something that's not interesting. The time commitment and emotional investment that just aren't worth it. If I feel my interest flagging, I keep going for a while, but if a story just isn't connecting with me, I let it go.
The Lazarus Project (2008) (unfinished), Aleksandar Hemon I made it further in this one than the Kanon, probably as much as one-third or 40 percent, but I simply ran out of energy. The premise was intriguing: Chapters alternate between the aftermath of the killing of an immigrant around the turn of the century and a novelist's modern-day journey to research the past, both of the dead man and his own family. But there's a kind of despair and hopelessness that make the story impossible to read after a while; imagine Foer without the humor or linguistic skill. I grew tired of the protagonist's limited emotional range and cursing of the heavenly fates and decided to move on.
Summer of Night (1991), Dan Simmons The Terror, despite a few erratic jumps at the end, hooked me on Simmons, and I opted to read this one next when a friend described it as "It, but written better." That turned out to be mostly true. Simmons' novel follows a group of young boys in small-town Illinois who band together to fight a supernatural evil in the summer of 1960. It's a fun, engaging read, though Simmons' weakness with geography makes for some confusing chase sequences. The main flaw, though, is that it needed a better edit. I don't mean it should be shorter; at 600 pages in paperback, it's an enjoyable length, long enough to dig into the story and characters. But the repetition of certain phrases and bits of information in a few scenes, often separated by only a paragraph or two, is occasionally jarring. A cleaner, tighter edit would've shaved these out. Still, worth checking out for horror fans.
Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson A quick, tightly drawn YA novel about a society in which people are so dependent on the Internet that it's been internalized via chips in their brains that allow them to shop, chat, and communicate via thought. Like the best satire, it's only a step or two beyond the current world, and in the eight years since its release, it's only grown more relevant.
The Unnamed (2010), Joshua Ferris I adored Ferris' first novel, Then We Came to the End, for its satire and humor about the dark undercurrent of life facing modern twentysomethings. His follow-up, though, is very different, and though he's still an assured writer, I remained unmoved by The Unnamed. I didn't mind the speculative-fiction premise -- a man comes down with a freak malady that controls his body and forces him to walk for miles in all directions -- nor did I have any trouble relating to the emotional parallels of search, loss, etc. What hurt the most was watching the man and his wife utterly destroy each other for 300 pages. They're not in love, and never really were, which means that every exchange and decision is tainted by the fact that, deep down, there's no reason for them to care about each other. The novel also skirts some potential real-world issues by making the man an extremely successful lawyer, so that while his disease does entail a loss of dignity, he's still ridiculously wealthy and able to finance his increasingly long jaunts by stopping by an ATM in his moments of control. This makes his inevitable breakdown not more tragic, merely less sympathetic. Despite a few moments of genuine humanity -- in the best sense -- the novel is ultimately about a cold man and bored woman who dislike each other and suffer for decades. It lacks all the shine and power of Ferris' first work, which used loneliness and other dark emotions to great, bittersweet effect to talk about the way we live life. Here, it's just bitter.
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), Rick Perlstein What a penetrating, fascinating, and heartbreaking modern history. Perlstein's hefty volume includes more than 100 pages of exhaustively sourced notes at the end, and his research is reflected in the narrative's fastidious detail and impressive scope. He traces the cultural and political fortunes of the United States between 1965 and 1972, using Johnson's 1964 landslide and Nixon's 1972 landslide as touchstones to explore just how divided the nation became. It's also a sad story, one that highlights the beginnings of the divides that still make political discourse a difficult task for those with opposing views. Perlstein expertly weaves together disparate story lines about war, poverty, race, class, and faith to create an amazing and compulsively readable account of a horrible era in American life. I can't recommend it enough.
Persepolis and Persepolis 2 (2004), Marjane Satrapi A fantastic memoir, filled with equal amounts of strength, resilience, and despair. Iran's history is (for me) a murky one, and this is a streamlined way to understand some of what's been happening there the past thirty years.
Generation Kill (2004), Evan Wright I'd been meaning to read this since before it was adapted into an HBO miniseries in 2008, and I'm so glad I did. The miniseries was fantastically made, but one of the things lost in translation was the first-person point-of-view of reporter Evan Wright. The book is a fantastic piece of reporting that also captures Wright's humor, fear, and willingness to examine the ugly and conflicting emotions that define war zones. (For example, one of the Marines in Wright's Humvee is a lethal machine gunner who winds up accidentally shooting a child, an act Wright finds horrific even as he takes comfort in the gunner's skill and accuracy when they ride into battle.) A riveting look at modern war.
Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell David Mitchell's novel plays with the notions of narrative and reality in interesting ways -- Michael Chabon described it as "nested dolls or Chinese boxes" in a blurb, and that's as good a way to put it as any -- but not always successfully. I enjoyed the heady rush as one section gave way to the next and each story seemed to be contained in the one after it, but Mitchell spent so much effort making his emotional argument (journey trumps the destination, our souls move on, etc.) that the novel's midpoint felt like the perfect conclusion. As a result, the unwinding halves of the stories that carried the book to its end felt superfluous. They weren't terrible, but they undercut what had come before, and they felt like fat that could have been cut entirely. I was gripped until the midpoint; from there, it was a slog just to skim. Mitchell made his point with grace, then bludgeoned it home for 200 more pages.
How to Be Alone (2002), Jonathan Franzen My first Franzen. I saw right away why he's so popular and divisive: he's a brilliant and perceptive writer who nevertheless can come off as whiny in his personal pieces. His journalistic essays, particularly the one about the U.S. Postal Service, are the best in the book.
The Myth of a Christian Nation (2006), Gregory A. Boyd A thoroughly researched and well-argued book, though it tends to skew a bit toward preacher prep. (Every chapter is broken into subsections, which are typically dispatched with "Here are three reasons that [this is the case]" introductions.) This makes sense, since Boyd adapted the book from a sermon series he preached in 2004 that caused close to 1,000 people to leave his church when he spoke about how Christian morality and American pride are wildly conflicting ideals. Easier going for those with evangelical backgrounds, but a necessary thesis for everyone to hear.
The Hunger Games (2008), Suzanne Collins I learned of The Hunger Games from Alex Day, one of the few (only?) YouTube users I regularly check on. The YA trilogy has earned some solid buzz, so I decided to check it out before it was turned into a movie (and it's a good thing I did). The first installment is a rock-solid page-turner that's plenty dark, and the premise -- the children of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic America are forced to fight for food for their individual territories in a kind of Battle Royale -- is a good one for the genre. A fun, quick read.
Animal Theology (1995), Andrew Linzey This is when I started to really consider what I was doing when I ate meat. I've always hated hunting and the idea of it, but I never really applied that to my life in terms of eating store-bought meat. My wife has been a vegetarian for years, but she never pushed me to make any dietary changes. I realized I was growing less and less content with the idea of consciously inflicting suffering on an animal that, though not a part of a planet-ruling society, still possessed the ability to feel pain and express fear. Even though I'd read (and loved) "Consider the Lobster" years ago, and was moved all the way back in high school by "The Hungry and the Hunted", I didn't really examine my behavior or beliefs, despite the clarity and impact of the moral argument. When I read Andrew Linzey, I began to understand even more that in addition to the moral secular arguments -- which are very good -- there's also a Christian one to be made, one that views mankind's stewardship of animals as a holy thing and views the animals themselves as important creations of God. Dominion isn't despotism, Linzey argues, and it's hard not to agree. I also started to ask myself what I wanted to get out of eating meat. If it was the knowledge that my meal had come from an animal that had once been alive and that had experienced slaughter to get to my plate, that was one thing; but if it was merely to enjoy a taste and texture sensation I'd grown up with, one that could be replicated with other materials or balanced outright with other foods, that was something else. And I realized I was eating meat not because I objectively loved it, or because I wanted to eat flesh, but because I was used to it, and because not thinking about it was easier than thinking about it. So I stopped. Not all at once; there were still a few bacon-inclusive breakfast tacos for a week or two (sorry, babe), but eventually I just phased it out. I liked the challenge of finding other food sources as well as the knowledge that I was eating better, healthier, and more responsibly, both in a global and spiritual sense. I was tired of eating burgers or barbecue and feeling not just full but distended afterward. I felt better eating veggie patties made from beans or grains, and eating protein substitutes for my daily lunch at the office. I missed it less than I thought I would.
Full Dark, No Stars (2010), Stephen King Now this is more like it. King's latest novella collection is still riddled with some of the annoying tics that have come with his old age, like a weird propensity to use specific brand names (e.g., Bing, randomly) that dates the stories before they even hit shelves. He's also not nearly as good as he used to be (or as good as other authors, like his son) at shifting voices between stories; I'm thinking of the annoying trait of referring to Montgomery Ward as "Monkey Ward," which two separate characters do in stories set almost a century apart, an act that would never happen outside of an indulgently written Stephen King book. Still, for the most part, the stories are much darker and more daring than anything he's written in almost 20 years, pushing past the points of easy resolution and getting into some murky and dangerous moral waters. Two of the four stories don't involve the supernatural in any way, and they all feature protagonists who draw curved lines in the sand to define their ethics. King's prime is still behind him, but this is a solid outing.
Catching Fire (2009), Suzanne Collins After a brief break in which I bought the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy, I jumped back in and devoured the second volume. It's a great second act that deepens the story of rebellion and anarchy while shoving its heroine back into another gruesome round of Games. Written bluntly but with an engaging speed that's undeniable.
Mockingjay (2010), Suzanne Collins Collins' trilogy is highly addictive, but in the third novel she gives in to too many temptations and ideas, stuffing the narrative with excessive odds and ends that make the story feel rushed. Conversations are summarized rather than allowed to unfold, and entire chunks of action are breezily recounted by the narrator with no change in tone. Collins seems to have an aversion to text breaks within chapters, but this is the first time it really hurts the pacing. Additionally, after starting with such a strong book that put the narrator at the center of the action (as she recounted her experiences fighting in the Games), it's a disappointment to end with a book that so often has the narrator miles away from the action, mournfully kicking around a room until someone reports back to her what's happening. An engaging and interesting story, altogether, but the first book remains the best.
In the Woods (2007), Tana French A solid and engaging mystery story that brings a literary air to a bloody procedural. There are also weird but mostly enjoyable hints of something deeply supernaturally weird happening around the edges, and if French never lines these up at the end the way you'd expect, maybe that's the whole point. A thoroughly engrossing story, and one I thought about whenever I wasn't reading it. That's always the sign of a good book: when you're impatient to return to the fictional world it's created.
The Magicians (2009), Lev Grossman I had the same reaction to The Magicians. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about reading it, thinking about the characters and the magical worlds they inhabited. Magicians is an adult novel about college-age kids enrolled in a magical university, and it's structured as a series of tight vignettes that give it a slightly looser feel than typical chapter-based novels. Grossman knowingly incorporates ideas and details from earlier major fantasy works -- Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling -- but he also name-checks them throughout. The point of this isn't to mimic what came before, but to cast it as easy fantasy next to a purportedly more real story. The main characters travel to a land they thought was make-believe, and when they get there, they have angry conversations with its ruler that display a darker take on theodicy than Lewis. (His characters don't grant that the existence of a just ruling presence leaves room for the existence of evil. A tough issue, to be sure, and though I come down on a different side of the fence, I was still moved by the pain of these yearning men and women.) He intentionally sets up a perverse, dark version of Narnia to work out his own theological kinks, and it plays a little like "Lars von Trier's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," but it works. For Grossman, the fantasy worlds are always in some ways a letdown, and the glorious battles are far more violent and less enjoyable than stories made them out to be. It's beautiful, hilarious, sad, and riveting. I plowed through it in days.
I love reading, and I don't get to do it nearly as often as I'd like. (Between a full-time job and three freelancing gigs, I tend to run out of free time if I don't plan well.) Just putting this meager list together made me regret how much I didn't get done in 2009, and it strengthened my resolve to read more books in 2010 and beyond. In fact, if I hadn't been unemployed for a certain part of the year, I would've read even less. That's criminal.Anyway, here's what I read this year. I omitted a couple minor titles I reread to kill time as I was boxing up my stuff and preparing to move from California to Texas, since I was only picking out excerpts from certain well-loved books (e.g., "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" from David Foster Wallace's collection of the same name, a hilarious and wonderful essay I could read every month). But I have included a couple of titles that I reread in full, and noted them accordingly. So with all that said, here's what I managed to read in 2009: How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008), Daniel Mendelsohn This was one of those purely lucky finds. I was browsing through nonfiction when I came across this collection of essays and criticisms from Mendelsohn that have appeared in the New York Review of Books. He filters most of his criticism through a classical lens, analyzing modern takes on Greek myths and asking important questions about art, film, and theater. His essay on United 93, titled "September 11 at the Movies," is flat-out fantastic. Black Hole (2005), Charles Burns A wonderful graphic novel, collected from individual issues that were published over a decade. It uses the premise of a disease ("the bug") that inflicts victims with weird mutations as an examination of youth, longing, and the great and terrible things that are impossible to explain. Burns is amazing at telling a whole story by only showing small parts of it. The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), Michael Chabon Chabon is great at creating parallel universes, and this is no exception. It's a mystery set in a world with an alternate history in which a Jewish refugee camp was established in Alaska during World War II, and the story takes place in present day. Not his best work, but still worth reading. Ender's Game (1985) (reread), Orson Scott Card I grabbed this off the shelf in a fit of nostalgia in the spring. I read the same battered copy I've had for years, which I bought in the third grade at the school's book fair. It held up pretty well, and is still a fun and entertaining sci-fi story. Speaker for the Dead (1986), Orson Scott Card Almost daringly awful. Card's follow-up to Ender's Game was the first of several sequels and spin-offs set in the story's universe, but it's horribly plotted and choked throughout with unbelievably terrible dialogue. Halfway through, I found myself skimming, hoping things would get better but knowing that they probably wouldn't. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) (reread), Dave Eggers I hadn't reread this since the first time I read it, in the summer of 2003. It was inspirational then, coming along at a time when I was just starting to convince myself I could eventually be a writer, and the story's just as moving now. A People's History of the United States (2003 edition), Howard Zinn Zinn's examination of American society is a powerful one. He delves into some of the lesser known moments of the past couple centuries, and makes a compelling and believable case that the country has been built on a pattern of degradation and manipulation. The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), Audrey Niffenegger I picked up the sci-fi romance in anticipation of seeing the movie, and though I never got around to the film, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. It's an interesting concept — boy meets girl, boy is unstuck in time, tragedy ensues — and Niffenegger pulls it off pretty well. Consider the Lobster (2005) (reread), David Foster Wallace Wallace is my favorite author, and I can always pull down his books and dip back into the fiction and essays with ease. This was his last collection of essays published before his suicide in 2008, an event that still breaks my heart to think about. The book is thoughtful, probing, funny, and committed to examining all the truth underneath everything. The Swap (2007), Antony Moore A solid little story that feels a little bloated as a small novel but still packs a punch when it wants to. Fun mystery, good jokes, and killer ending. City of Thieves (2008), David Benioff Benioff's phenomenal second novel is a moving, engaging story about war and love, and the worthwhile risks of friendship. I devoured it. Columbine (2009), Dave Cullen Cullen's exhaustively researched book is awesome for the way it meticulously re-creates the prelude, shooting, and aftermath of what would be the deadliest school shooting until the horror at Virginia Tech in 2007. Cullen reconstructs the 1999 killings and lays out a decade's worth of research, though much of what he knows was established just months after the event in the reporting he did for Salon. For a member of the generation directly affected by the shootings at Columbine High — I was 16 and finishing up my junior year — it's a powerful reminder of what it was like to watch it happen. It's a gripping book. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (2009), Wells Tower Good grief, did I hate myself while reading this. Sure, Tower ties the group of bitter and unfriendly stories together on the last page of the last story, but I don't agree with his conclusions and I barely survived the journey to get there. Zeitoun (2009), Dave Eggers Eggers' nonfiction narrative about the persecution of a Syrian-American man in the days following Hurricane Katrina is gut-wrenching in its detail and jaw-dropping in the way he lays out the atrocities and incompetencies inflicted on a man by a paranoid government that placed a higher premium on caging its citizens than on helping its wounded. It deserves to be read. Blackwater (2007), Jeremy Scahill Scahill's indictment of Blackwater USA (now Xe Services LLC) is a worthy one, though he occasionally slips into a pissy and partisan rhetoric that dilutes the power of the facts at his disposal. Private contractors working for Blackwater in Iraq did some bad things during the war, and when Scahill focuses on the truth of these violations of justice and ethics, his book is a damning document that recounts the lengths people can go to when responsibility is no longer an issue.
From David Foster Wallace's essay about growing up playing tennis in the Midwest (available here online and as part of the fantastic collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again). He writes about being a lazy but occasionally inspired player thanks to his love of math, and it's a nerdily detailed and completely entertaining read:
When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad's alma mater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics. I'm starting to see why this was so. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner's sickness for home. I'd grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids — and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates. The area behind and below these broad curves at the seam of land and sky I could plot by eye way before I came to know infinitesimals as easements, an integral as schema. Math at a hilly Eastern school was like waking up; it dismantled memory and put it in light. Calculus was, quite literally, child's play.
Tennis-wise, I had two preternatural gifts to compensate for not much physical talent. Make that three. The first was that I always sweated so much that I stayed fairly ventilated in all weathers. Oversweating seems an ambivalent blessing, and it didn't exactly do wonders for my social life in high school, but it meant I could play for hours on a Turkish-bath July day and not flag a bit so long as I drank water and ate salty stuff between matches. I always looked like a drowned man by about game four, but I didn't cramp, vomit, or pass out, unlike the gleaming Peoria kids whose hair never even lost its part right up until their eyes rolled up in their heads and they pitched forward onto the shimmering concrete. A bigger asset still was that I was extremely comfortable inside straight lines. None of the odd geometric claustrophobia that turns some gifted juniors into skittish zoo animals after a while. I found I felt best physically enwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners. This was environmental. Philo, Illinois, is a cockeyed grid: nine north-south streets against six northeast-southwest, fifty-one gorgeous slanted-cruciform corners (the east and west intersection-angles' tangents could be evaluated integrally in terms of their secants!) around a three-intersection central town common with a tank whose nozzle pointed northwest at Urbana, plus a frozen native son, felled on the Salerno beachhead, whose bronze hand pointed true north. In the late morning, the Salerno guy's statue had a squat black shadow-arm against grass dense enough to putt on; in the evening the sun galvanized his left profile and cast his arm's accusing shadow out to the right, bent at the angle of a stick in a pond. At college it suddenly occurred to me during a quiz that the differential between the direction the statue's hand pointed and the arc of its shadow's rotation was first-order. Anyway, most of my memories of childhood — whether of furrowed acreage, or of a harvester's sentry duty along RR104W, or of the play of sharp shadows against the Legion Hall softball field's dusk — I could now reconstruct on demand with an edge and protractor.
(Photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr)
David Foster Wallace killed himself over the weekend, and I'm still figuring out how to process it.
I spent the summer after I graduated college reading Infinite Jest, which is really the only way to read it. I turned 22 that summer, and spent my days waiting tables at a steakhouse for cowboys who tipped poorly, most likely out of resentment that fate had given me them instead of the blond in the denim skirt. But with everyone I knew having moved away and my own departure for sunny Southern California still a couple months off, I had little else to do with myself than plow through David Foster Wallace's massive, sprawling, gorgeous book.
I loved everything about it. The story burned itself into my central nervous system as few had before or ever will. If a great film is one that keeps playing in your head long after the lights have come up, then surely a great book is one whose characters and situations never stop resonating and whose worldviews become tied into your own. I still see Joelle Van Dyne, and Hal Incandenza, and Bimmy. I still see them. The book was huge, and dense, and footnoted to a ridiculous degree with an appended section of everything from clarifications to conversations to whole flashbacks. Reading it was finding something new and wonderful.
And that was what made me fall in love with Wallace's writing. More than just enjoying his short stories, novels, and narrative nonfiction, I can usually remember where I was or what was going on in my life the first time I read a given book of his. (E.g., I remember reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again when I went home for my sister's college graduation, and also trying to bite my tongue in the airport while reading "Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All," a piece about Wallace's trip to the Illinois State Fair that made me convulse with quiet laughter so much that people actually looked at me funny.)
His stuff was sharp, and big, and he felt like mine, you know? Films are communal things by virtue of the nature of their consumption, but a book is a private thing, and no two people will read something or take it to heart the same way. "Big Red Son" is a glorious essay, and "Authority and American Usage" rubbed the grammar nerd in me in all the right ways. Wallace was fiendishly smart, and he used that intellect both to strive for a higher quality of writing and to joyfully break the rules when he wanted to. I know Wallace was lauded for his ambition and skill and genius, all of it deserved, but while on one level I mourn the loss of a great author, on another I'm brokenhearted that that part of me will never get anything new. Rereading his books now will bring with the act a sense of sadness and regret that the words I'm reading are part of a finite supply.
Wallace's books are complicated and challenging affairs, but they're also rewarding: You're ushered into a world so thoroughly realized and so painfully real that the story becomes more meaningful than you'd have guessed. Infinite Jest (and The Broom of the System, and others) builds toward a frantic ending that stops short of where a more conventional narrative would end, but to have gone on longer would have been to serve character over the need to create a certain style and kind and way of story. I can't help but reel at the sad parallel between Wallace's life and that kind of tragic pre-ending some of his stories offered, but I can't help but smile weakly at the way it all came out. I will miss this man and his works, but damn if he didn't change my life.
Here are a few links I've found. They offer a fractioned glimpse at the man's style and thoughts, but for newcomers, I'd recommend Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. And of course, Infinite Jest. It's worth the time.
• Profile of Roger Federer • "Host" • "Consider the Lobster" • "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" • "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think" • "Authority and American Usage" • Some of the above can be found in this round-up of pieces Wallace wrote for Harper's, available as PDFs. • "David Lynch Keeps His Head" • "F/X Porn"
UPDATE: • There's also John's wonderful appreciation of DFW. • Additionally, KCRW's Bookworm has added a pair of DFW programs to its archive and will be doing one in memoriam that will undoubtedly find its way there before long. The first is from May 1997, the second is from August 1999.
I know I'm slightly late with this, and that in the 24 hours since it's gone up the original post has received something like ~400 comments, which is insane/amazing, but over at Pajiba we're taking votes on your favorite novels of the past 15 years. Why the past 15 years? Because it's our game, and those are the rules. The goal is to come up with a list of 5-6 books people would most like to see discussed on the site, meaning we'll actually have to read them and then talk about them, so try not assign us anything too horrible. It's tough to limit myself to five, but the timeliness factor helped a little. Here's what I came up with:1. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace 2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon 3. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer 4. The Memory of Running, Ron McLarty 5. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem I know, I'm like a giant walking stereotype of modern twentysomething reading habits. Anyway, we're taking votes for the rest of the week, so feel free to post your own list. I think the results, once tallied, will be pretty interesting.
Age of Thomas Wolfe upon publication of Look Homeward, Angel: 29Age of Bruce Springsteen upon release of Born to Run: 25 Age of Bob Dylan upon release of Highway 61 Revisited: 24 Age of David Foster Wallace upon publication of The Broom of the System: 25 Age of Norman Mailer upon publication of The Naked and the Dead: 25 Age of Elvis Costello upon release of My Aim Is True: 22 Age of Wes Anderson upon release of Bottle Rocket: 27 Age of Noah Baumbach upon release of Kicking and Screaming: 26 Age of Ryan Adams upon release of Heartbreaker: 26 Ages of Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn upon release of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression: 23, 24, 23 ... I am really, really wasting my 20s. Really.