75 Books, Books #5-7

Last week was a busy week, but if there was any advantage to MUNI’s stunning inefficiencies of late (thank you, Nathaniel Ford!), it’s the extra 45 minutes per day of reading time.

Book #5 was Gilbert Sorrentino’s Little Casino. When I initially started reading this, it seemed to me that this was not so much a “novel,” but more of a collection of throwaway pieces. The book is constructed in short chapters, each chapter split up into two sections. The first is a memory fragment of some unknown human, some random incident of a fey and often funny nature, the second is a sort of intellectual response to it that often clarifies details through a voice that may or may not be the “author’s.” Of course, this being the world of Sorrentino, each fragment involves either a grisly death, sex or a fixation on cigarettes. Even when a chapter isn’t successful (and there are plenty that aren’t, some of them read like as if they’ve been pulled out of an MFA student’s journal, but this approach may in fact be the point), the book can be enjoyed as a collection of vignettes or possibly an effort to track various characters (some of them specific names, some of them merely “hes” and “shes”) who may or may not match up.

Strangely, I found myself preferring Sorrentino’s stylistic exercises to many of the calls and responses. There is, for example, a “lengthy” deposition transcript that points out the hypocrisies of political correctness and frivolous litigation which is quite hilarious, but it could have been thrown into just about any Sorrentino novel. And while I always enjoy Sorrentino getting goofy with self-imposed prose limitations (one chapter, for example, has every sentence begin with “Had X not Y”), I wondered how much of the book was genuinely “experimental” and how much was filler. I didn’t so much mind the lack of unity, but, unlike Mulligan Stew, I really felt that much of this work was written to pad it out to 200 pages and didn’t always find myself relishing the work. So this book is probably for Sorrentino completists only. For everyone else interested in dipping their toes into Sorrentino, still one of today’s most underrated novelists, I highly recommend Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.

For more on Sorrentino, check out this lengthy Gerald Howard profile.

Book #6 was Jonathan AmesI Love You More Than You Can Know, a nonfiction collection that Ames had suggested to me was a collection of throwaway pieces — essentiallly, the remaining nonfiction that he hadn’t yet assembled in book form. I should have known that he was being typically self-effacing. This is not his answer to The Salmon of Doubt — in large part, because this isn’t a posthumous collection. Because many of these essays are as funny as anything Ames has ever written, particularly the leftover New York Press pieces. What’s particularly interesting is that Ames saved a good deal of essays involving his penis for this book. This time around, however, Ames seems even more introspective (if it can be believed) and a tad gloomier than his two previous books of nonfiction. Or perhaps I was a tad cheerier. Whatever the case, his more recent pieces from the past three years read as if they’ve been written under duress. But if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Ames’ essays, it’s definitely worth it for the laughs.

Incidentally, the Young, Roving Correspondent will be talking with Ames again when he strolls through San Francisco. I’m honored to announce that Jonathan Ames will be the first guest to appear twice on the Bat Segundo Show. And while I’m unlikely to reveal any future Segundo-related books after the podcasts have been posted, in Ames’ case, I wanted to make a special exception, as I must honor the tacit agreement of constant Ames promotion.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: And as fate would have it, Jonathan Ames has a new essay about cleaning his fridge up over at The Morning News.]

Book #7 was Tim O’Brien‘s Lake in the Woods, which was my first O’Brien novel and it certainly won’t be my last. The book tells the story of John Wade, a veteran of My Lai and one-time teenage magician who morphs into a politician. One day, shortly after catastrophically losing a U.S. Senate race just after a personal scandal that isn’t entirely spelled out, his wife disappears. The reasons for her disappearance and the circumstances of Wade’s life are unclear, but are gradually revealed to the reader. What makes the book work so well is that way O’Brien plays with context and keeps many fascinating details from the reader. O’Brien is daring enough not to answer all of the questions and is deft at balancing style (chapters containing excerpts from “interviews” and books on war and politics provide context, as do other chapters offering hypotheses on what may have happened) with a reader’s expectations. Unfortunately, once O’Brien’s revealed his hand, the book starts to flag near the end. But as a study of concealment, both personal and historical, O’Brien’s book is gripping, written in an effectively austere manner.

It’s also interesting that shortly after writing this novel, O’Brien published a painfully personal essay about surviving My Lai and what his life was like years later. He revealed thoughts of suicide, sleeping pills and memories of a girlfriend who left him. He also reveals that the name of his real-life girlfriend is Kate (also the name of John Wade’s wife).

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